cynical (1)

I heard a preacher once say cynicism was a sin that Christians should repent of. I immediately distrusted the man.

Okay. That’s a bit of an exaggeration. I just took everything else he said with a grain of salt. You see, I have come to view cynicism as a rather healthy reaction to the state of things. Unlike the bubbly optimist, the cynic is grounded in the real world. Of course, cynics may indeed be crushed romantics; they’ve been hurt, they’re sensitive, and their cynicism is a shell that’s protecting a tiny, sacred part of themselves that dearly wants to believe. Then again, cynicism could indeed be the cancerous toxin poisoning the well of a “well lived” life.

One of the many parental proverbs we foisted upon our children when they were young was this one: “Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.” It’s become a motto of mine, a “life verse” if you will. Both parts are necessary for a healthy existence.

  • Prepare for the worst — Because bad things happen and you’re a fool if you think you’re exempt
  • Hope for the best — Because God promises His kids a bright future and to work all things out for good

Removing either one of those exercises is equivalent to removing one wing on an airplane. The disastrous outcome is about the same. The person who looks only at the worst and expects only the worst, will become a sink of despair and an incessant bellyacher. The person who looks only at the best and expects only the best, will either be crushed by reality or become lost in the clouds of idealism.

Because we live in a fallen world, populated by sinners and charlatans, a certain degree of skepticism and distrust is healthy. Heck, even Jesus did not entrust Himself to anyone, “because he knew human nature” (Jn. 2:24). Unlike some of us, Jesus was never “too trusting.” He saw us for what we are and kept relative distance because of that. Likewise, Scripture speaks often about discernment — the ability to see below the surface, uncover agendas, perceive motives. Seeing your spouse, minister, congressman, or favorite musician as anything other than a vile sinner is a set-up for disappointment. In this sense, cynicism plays a part in discernment and can be an important component in a wise, balanced life.

Of course, someone with a propensity toward melancholy (or paranoia, or pessimism), will laud these observations. (Cynics love having their naysaying, nitpicky observations confirmed. Public scandal, divorce, fraud and debauchery ensconce the resident cynic further in his curmudgeonly appraisals.) For the Christian, however, living in such a constant “glass is half empty” state is not optimal to the kind of life Scripture seems to encourage. In this sense, cynicism is only good as long as it is balanced by faith, hope and love. Without the other virtues, cynicism grows unchecked, draining the life from its host.

It should also be noted that there’s a difference between being cynical and being a cynic. Scripture seems to imply as much. Take for example Psalm One:

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful. (Ps. 1:1 KJV)

The Bible often describes this “blessed” state, what it looks like and how to get there. This verse says we’re blessed by not doing something — specifically, three things. Blessed is the man that doesn’t…

WALK in the counsel of the ungodly

STAND in the path of sinners

SIT in the seat of the scornful

The downward progression appears intentional. From walking, to standing to sitting. The final state is sitting in the seat of the “scornful.” The Hebrew word for “scornful” is “to mock, deride, ridicule, scoff.” It implies habitual action and refers to someone who is regularly engaged in scorn, mockery, and ridicule. The Psalmist is not describing an occasional opinion or attitude, but a manner of being, a thoroughly settled state or condition.

Likewise, there’s a difference between being cynical and being a cynic, seeing people for what they are, acknowledging “the worst” in life, and sitting in the seat of the scoffer.

After my church disbanded and I left behind over a decade of ministry, I was tempted to move from being cynical to becoming a cynic. I had experienced firsthand the worst of evangelicalism. I had suffered disappointment and become someone I did not like. It was a toxic situation. Not only do I tend to overthink everything and succumb to flights of melancholy, but my experiences in the ministry left me bitter and full of scorn.

I was moving from being cynical to officially becoming a cynic. I skirted the ranks of mockers who jeered Christianity and was tempted to take refuge in that state.

And that’s where the “hope for the best” part kicked in.

The biggest problem facing the Christian cynic is reconciling the spirit of Scripture with their negative, pessimistic outlook. No doubt, there is plenty for us to rail about in this life. The Bible adds fuel to the cynic’s fire by making numerous gloomy (albeit accurate) assertions about the world and those who live in it. In fact, many of these assertions are foundational to a Christian worldview. For instance:

  • Man is estranged from God, his impulses and moral faculties are warped, his nature is permanently corrupted.
  • Because of our sin and spiritual rebellion, the earth is cursed and each successive generation inherits the genetic drag.
  • We live in a state of cognitive dissonance, knowing God’s law but compelled to forever break it.
  • Apart from God’s saving grace, we will die in our sins and dwell in eternal torment.
  • The world system is intrinsically evil; civilization will get worse and worse, exceedingly violent and depraved, until God intervenes.
  • Hell is the destination for all those who reject God’s grace; that road is wide and many walk it.

The Bible confirms the fact that people are screwed up, the world’s going to hell in a handbasket, and if we don’t pull our heads out of our rectal cavities, we’ll find ourselves in the mix. The Christian worldview is built upon a series of blunt, bald, unglamorous declarations about the state of things. Like it or not, there is reason to distrust others, be suspicious of anything popular, eschew all things rosy and buck utopian ideals. Armageddon is inevitable.

Which is why non-believers often see Christianity itself as a cynical, pessimistic, fatalistic religion.

Thankfully, the Scripture doesn’t stop there. If it did, we could rightly slink off into despondency or smug judgmentalism. And herein lies the Christian cynic’s dilemma: The same Book that charts Hell and the handbasket we’re heading there in, proclaims hope to the captives, rest to the restless and cheer for the chronic pessimist.

To the dismay of cynics everywhere, the last book of the Bible sounds a note of eternal optimism.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever. (Rev. 22:1-5 NIV)

Whereas Genesis opens with the Desecration of Earth, Revelation concludes with its Reclamation. For now, evil reigns. As do cynics. But a Day shall come when the tares are plucked from the field, the chaff torched and the Garden restored to its former beauty.

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Rev. 21:4-5 NIV)

And therein lies the rub. While Scripture permits us a critical, unbelieving eye as it pertains to the things of earth, it does not allow us to remain there. We are faced with an ultimatum: Either God wins or He doesn’t; either the Son rises or the Night prevails; either the new comes or it’s same old, same old.

And this is the crossroad — the point of impact — where every Christian cynic inevitably arrives.

At the heart of terminal cynicism is unbelief — an unwillingness to take God at His Word, to trust Him to bring about what He has promised. Yes, I have reason to be skeptical, critical, derisive and suspicious. But I also have reason to rejoice, to have hope. When I padlocked the door to my church and hung up my robes, I had the option of wallowing. Did I get a raw deal? Possibly. Was the church to blame? In part. Did I have issues? You bet. But I couldn’t open the Bible without verses like this tugging at the cancerous root:

And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28 NKJV).

Call it wishful thinkful, Pollyanna, rose colored glasses — whatever. Either it’s true or it ain’t. Either God can work all things together for good, or He can’t. Either God wins, or He doesn’t. It’s okay to be a cynic, especially as we are skeptical of ourselves. It’s when we allow that cynicism to erode our faith in God that we are in danger of taking a permanent “seat” with the scornful.

So, yeah — cynicism IS  a virtue. But only so long as it remains subservient to hope.

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only-a-sith-deals-with-absolutes-motifakes-demotivational-poster-1225143426Western civilization’s drift from a predominantly Judeo-Christian worldview to postmodern relativism has had a significant effect on our storytelling. Any appeal to Good and Evil, Right and Wrong — a universe where absolutes exist — is intrinsically tethered to a Judeo Christian worldview. And without that worldview and a context of Moral Absolutes, stories lack logical and/or emotional bite.

I was reminded of that yesterday while reading Andrew Klavan’s review of the latest James Bond entry “Spectre.” Klavan writes,

The Bond of Dr. No, like the Ethan Hunt of the original MI TV series, like the Luke Skywalker of the first Star Wars trilogy, knew what he was fighting for and what he was fighting against. The story — all those stories — took place with the presence of the Soviet Union and Red China in every viewer’s mind. We knew they were slave states who wished to impose their brand of slavery — called communism then, progressivism now — on the entire world. We knew we needed brave men and strong ideas to defeat them.

Where oh where could we find such villains today? Who holds to a slave philosophy now? Who wants to impose that philosophy on the rest of us? Why are they evil? Why should we oppose them?

The answers are 1. In the Middle East; 2. Islamists; 3. Also Islamists; 4. Because individual liberty is an objective good; and 5. Because if good men don’t fight evil, evil wins.

The people who make these movies live in a haze of such intellectual dishonesty that they have forgotten, or chosen to ignore, these answers. They aren’t honest so they can’t write honest plots. Their villains have no motives and their master plans are confusing where they’re not just laughable. Their heroes are merely an assemblage of characteristics from an earlier age: empty images that move and talk a certain way but have no virtue and so no power to thrill. They are, so to speak, merely spectres of their former selves.

Without intellectual honesty, you can’t find moral truth. Without moral truth, there are no good stories. (bold, mine)

The further one drifts towards relativism, the less real Evil there is. To the postmodern relativist, jihadists have legitimate gripes, “individual liberty is [NOT] an objective good,” and Darth Maul needs “understood” rather than impaled on a light saber. Likewise, “without moral truth,” authors are forced to merely contrive survival scenarios and “values clarification” exercises. Our “bad guys” are simply confused and our good guys aren’t much better. To the postmodern filmmaker, there is no altruistic Moral high ground, just a vast wasteland of eye candy.

Of course, some will object that Relativistic fiction can be compelling. “You don’t need Moral Absolutes for a story to be interesting. A belief in Good and Evil can exist apart from Judeo-Christianity.” 

Sure, relativistic fiction can be compelling… but only if you don’t think it through. So your protag survives. Big deal. If the Moral framework of her universe is negotiable, what does her survival matter? Other than to her. The survival of the zombies or thieves or flesh eating bacteria might be just as morally sustainable. And if that Moral framework is relative, then her survival really doesn’t matter. I mean, why is it “better” that she and her child survive? On what grounds? And in the end, if there are no Moral Absolutes, your protag and all her great deeds will simply fade into the dust of history like so many other valiant, yet futile, warriors.

Others will object that a belief in Good and Evil can exist apart from Judeo-Christianity. To which I’d ask, in which worldview? Not the relativistic worldview, for Good and Evil are subjectively defined. They are not “real” except to the individual or society who believes them to be. In a relativistic universe, why should the Third Reich be defeated? Because they’re killing innocent people? According to them they’re eliminating an inferior race. Because they threaten human existence? According to them, they are advancing the species. See? You can’t fight evil unless you actually believe in Evil.

Which implies the existence of Good. An objective, Absolute Moral Good.

Two of the major world religions — Judeo-Christianity and Islam — see morals as rooted in God (even though their conceptions of God greatly differ). In Hinduism, the third great world religion, God is in everything, both good and evil. As a result, there is no absolute morality. Through the law of karma, the soul (Atman) simply migrates back to God (Brahman).

So I ask again, which other worldview appeals to Moral Absolutes? An

  • atheistic worldview?
  • humanistic worldview?
  • pantheistic worldview?
  • polytheistic worldview?

In theory, none of them appeal to Moral Absolutes. In practice, all of them do. While someone may claim they believe that truth is relative, they rarely act like it. Which is why Moral relativists are still compelled to fight for human rights, demand justice, aspire to be noble and courageous, and not kick puppies for the fun of it.

Any belief system that appeals to a Moral Law evokes a Judeo-Christian worldview. How? Because a Moral Law implies a Moral Lawgiver.

Dennis Prager, Jewish speaker and radio talk show host, in his article entitled Moral Absolutes put it simply:

In the Judeo-Christian value system, God is the source of moral values and therefore what is moral and immoral transcends personal or societal opinion. Without God, each society or individual makes up its or his/her moral standards. But once individuals or societies become the source of right and wrong, right and wrong, good and evil, are merely adjectives describing one’s preferences. This is known as moral relativism, and it is the dominant attitude toward morality in modern secular society. (emphasis mine)

There are only two options here, folks. We either live in a world where

  1. Morals are grounded outside us (in God / the Universe), or
  2. Morals are grounded inside us (in individuals / society).

Either Morals are static or elastic, unchanging or always changing, real or illusory.

Which is why Moral Absolutes are essential to good storytelling. Think about it, even books that frame a godless, impersonal universe of moral relativity appeal to Absolutes to make their point.

For example, take Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Pullman is an avowed atheist whose series has been described as “a secular humanist narrative.” The author flatly said, “My books are about killing God.” He’s famously quoted as saying, that the Chronicles of Narnia “is one of the most ugly and poisonous things I’ve ever read,” and is also “blatantly racist”, “monumentally disparaging of women”, “immoral”, and “evil” But even in Phillip Pullman’s universe there had to be an Enemy, Something Worth Fighting For, some Good to accomplish. In that case, the Good was defeating the oppressive Church and its fairy tale deity.

James Cameron’s Avatar is another example. While the deity at the center of Cameron’s universe is portrayed as neutral and impersonal, she is quite fickle. In my post (appropriately titled), Avatar’s Fickle Deity, I concluded:

Cameron wants to have his Nature and eat it too.  So all the while Avatar is pushing a New Age, Neutral Deity, that Deity is busy acting very non-New Age and un-Neutral, arming her forces to the teeth. In the end, the Impartial, Impersonal Force of Cameron’s world turns partial and personal, comes to the rescue and turns, tooth and claw, on the bad guys.

Much like Slumdog Millionaire denied its Hindu roots to make the story work, Avatar must abandon its New Age, Nature-worshiping, Gospel of Gaia sympathies, to bring about sufficient resolution to the story. But frankly, not even $500 million worth of graphics can camouflage Avatar’s ideological absurdity.

As Augustine said, Either there is REAL evil to fear or the fact that we fear what is not really evil, is EVIL. Take your pick. In like manner, either there is Real Evil to fight in Pullman’s worldview or the fact that he feels he must fight something is Really Evil. If Pullman’s book is about “killing God,” the question I ask is “Why should God die?” If it’s because He is evil, then you presuppose Good. If it’s because the existence of God is a lie, then you imply objective Truth.

Defeating God, the Church, or Christian belief becomes pointless unless defeating them is The Right Thing to Do. Fighting bad guys is nonsensical unless there really are bad guys who need beaten. Which presupposes Good and Bad, Right and Wrong. Which appeals to a Judeo-Christian worldview.

Why is it morally better for the Federation to defeat the Klingons? Unless you believe in some sort of absolute objective morality, it’s not. Which is why Andrew Klavan is right, “Without moral truth, there are no good stories.”

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Screwtape, the fictional senior demon in Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, pontificates about how the mythologizing of science will ultimately lead adherents to demonic devotion, of course under another name, and create a new class of “scientist” known as “the Materialist The-Magician TarotMagician.”

“I have great hopes that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalise and mythologise [human] science to such an extent that what is, in effect, belief in us, (though not under that name) will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in the Enemy. The ‘Life Force’, the worship of sex, and some aspects of Psychoanalysis, may here prove useful. If once we can produce our perfect work—the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls ‘Forces’ while denying the existence of ‘spirits’—then the end of the war will be in sight.”

This new breed of scientist, “is not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls ‘Forces’ while denying the existence of ‘spirits.'” According to Master Screwtape, when this happens, “the end of the war [between men and devils] will be in sight.”

A recent NY Times article, Norway Has a New Passion: Ghost Hunting is but another indication that we are moving into that new spiritual era.

Ghosts, or at least belief in them, have been around for centuries but they have now found a particularly strong following in highly secular modern countries like Norway, places that are otherwise in the vanguard of what was once seen as Europe’s inexorable, science-led march away from superstition and religion.

While churches here may be largely empty and belief in God, according to opinion polls, in steady decline, belief in, or at least fascination with, ghosts and spirits is surging.

For all its claim to sufficiently address man’s existential plight, Darwinian materialism and scientistic reductionism have don’t little more than amplify the vacuum in our souls. In this case, the waning of traditional religion is not giving way to less superstition. Rather, traditional religion is giving way to “premodern religion,” aka, “paganism.”

“God is out but spirits and ghosts are filling the vacuum,” said Roar Fotland, a Methodist preacher and assistant professor at the Norwegian School of Theology in Oslo. Instead of slowly eliminating religion, as Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and other theorists predicted, modernity has only channeled religious feelings in unexpected ways, Mr. Fotland said.

“Belief in God, or at least a Christian God, is decreasing but belief in spirits is increasing,” he added, describing this as part of a general resurgence of “premodern religion.” (bold mine)

Apparently, the attempt to quash the supernatural with naturalistic formula is a losing proposition. Like an existential game of  Whack-a-Mole, we pummel our constant hunger for the Eternal, hoping to permanently rid ourselves of the angst, only to see it poke its head up elsewhere. As Chesterton was believed to have quipped, “When a man ceases to believe in God, he does not believe nothing. He believes anything.” Or in the case of secular Norwegians, going secular does not terminate “religious feelings,” it just channels them elsewhere.

People want the supernatural without the Supernatural. They secretly crave mystical transcendence while professing Materialism. They scrabble to fill the soulish vacuum created after God’s eviction, while trying to explain away the existence of such a vacuum.

Which is why this the Materialist Magician can never be truly “religionless.” For all his rejection of God, the Force he inevitably turns to incurs its own primitive demands.


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I received another nice review of Christian Horror: On the Compatibility of a Biblical Worldview and the Horror Genre, only this reader also challenged the conclusions I made in the Appendix On Ghosts. And as an “ex-medium,” I think she has good cause to. She wrote:

My only issue with Christian Horror (as Mike predicted “will trouble some readers”) is the appendix on “Ghosts”. As an ex-medium who practiced spiritism for the first half of my life Christian-Horror-Cover-3before my conversion to Christianity, I understand through firsthand experience that ghosts or spirits of the dead do not walk among us. I agree with Mike’s comment that we do live in a supernatural world. But my biblical worldview is that the supernatural beings that interact with humans here on earth are either angels or demons: Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment (Hebrews 9:27). Nevertheless, Christian Horror by Mike Duran makes a very important case for the Christian publishing market and writers to stop sugar-coating the biblical horror genre and to reclaim it for what it is.

I totally appreciate this reviewer’s caution and, in fact, think it’s wise. As she noted, I anticipated that some readers, especially evangelicals, could take issue with my conclusion. What was that conclusion? For the record, I remain agnostic on the nature of ghost. What gets me into trouble is that I don’t believe the evangelical position — that ghosts are demons — has strong Scriptural support.

What often concerns me (especially as an evangelical myself!) is that some will interpret this position as an endorsement of the occult, or a license to tinker around with paranormal phenomenon. Which is why I ended that Appendix with these words of caution:

While the Bible is not definitive as to the nature of ghosts, nor how the dead interact, if at all, with our world, Scripture is clear in its denunciation of necromancy, sorcery, and witchcraft (Deut. 18:9-12). We are forbidden, in explicit terms, from summoning, consulting, or communicating with the dead. So whatever conclusion a believer reaches about ghosts, inviting them, consulting them, or letting them hang around is the wrong thing to do. Seeing our world as a supernatural place is one thing; validating every supernatural phenomenon is another. In this, we do well to exercise great caution. (p. 105 paperback edition)

This is why I respect the reviewer’s caution. When it comes to the supernatural, it is far wiser to be skeptical and discerning than it is to rush willy-nilly into something potentially devilish. However, this need for discernment is precisely why we can’t automatically consign ghosts to the category of demons. As I wrote,

It is simply too easy to resign all paranormal phenomenon into the category of the demonic. Besides, we have no need to “test the spirits and see whether they are from God” (I Jn. 4:1) if all spirits (or spiritual phenomenon) are categorically evil. So while the Bible cautions us about deceiving spirits, it does not go so far as to say that all “encounters” are necessarily of the “deceptive” order. (p. 105 paperback edition; bold mine)

The need for spiritual discernment regarding “spirits” is evidence that there may be some wiggle room as to their nature. If all ghosts are demons, we don’t need discernment. But if, as I believe, there’s a broader range of spiritual possibilities, remaining skeptically agnostic may be a virtue.

Furthermore, some biblical texts appear to challenge the “ghosts are demons” narrative. Here’s what I consider the three most important.

  • Saul and the Witch of Endor (I Sam. 28) — The “ghost” of Samuel is summoned by a witch and witnessed as “a spirit coming up out of the ground” (vs. 13). The spirit is recognized as the dead prophet who validates himself by prophesying against Saul (vss. 16-19). So what was Samuel? A ghost or a demon?
  • The Mount of Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8) — Two dead prophets—Moses and Elijah—appear alongside Jesus in a glorified state. Had they been resurrected? Where did their bodies/souls  previously exist? Where did they return to? Compounding matters is that the prophets “were talking with Jesus” (vs. 4).
  • Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearance to the disciples in which they mistake Him for “a ghost” (Luke 24:36-39) — It suggests that ghosts were an admissible category within their culture. Jesus does not rebuke them for this belief. In fact, He seems to substantiate it—“a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have” (vs. 39). This implies that ghosts ARE something and not another. (Note, this isn’t the first time the disciples thought Jesus to be a ghost — Matt. 14:22-33.)

Notice: These instances DO NOT validate the existence of ghosts. They aren’t proof tests. They simply broaden the potential category.

I realize this position will both encourage and trouble some. Which is fine by me. I think the Bible frames a world of supernatural phenomenon that is far bigger and more mysterious than any of us could wrap into a tight, understandable theological package. There are, and will be, things beyond our explaining. Furthermore, I believe that we evangelicals are often guilty of forcing our beliefs into a black-and-white paradigm. Thus, something is either true or false, “Christian” or “unChristian,” “angel or ghost.” I’m just not convinced that we can approach all spiritual and/or paranormal phenomenon in this fashion.

There is no single verse or text that categorically portrays all ghosts as demons.

To be clear, I absolutely respect this reviewer’s caution. In fact, when approaching the supernatural, it is far better to be discerning and skeptical than it is to be reckless and naive. My agnosticism regarding the nature of ghosts stems from the simple fact that there’s enough clear biblical evidence to confidently say that ghosts are demons. Again, could they be demons? Absolutely! Should we mess with them, or even attempt to contact them? Absolutely not! I’m just of the opinion that we need a little less dogmatism and a little more wonder.

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I become an insomniac shortly after I memorized the Nicene Creed.

At that time, the Catholic mass in our town was still in Latin. Religion is hard enough to understand in one’s own language, much less some dusty medieval dialect. So reciting the Nicene Creed aloud in English was one of the few opportunities I had to figure out this thing called religion.

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We recited the creed as a congregation. It came after responsive readings and was usually followed by the discordant warbling of a gaunt white-haired priest named Father Vincent. He was a crotchety old man whose face was stitched into a perpetual scowl. If God was anything like Father Vincent, I recall thinking, we were in deep shit.

At the time, the congregation consisted of rag-tag immigrants from Italy to Mexico who’d ventured to the Golden State in search of the American Dream, only to, whether by default or intention, become chicken ranchers or steel workers. A hard-working lot they were, most of whom, I was sure, did not understand half of what they were actually reciting.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, light from light
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.

“We believe. We believe.”

At that time, I didn’t believe in much of anything. I believed in reptiles. Toads, mainly. I believed in the field of poppies next to our house, thrumming with bees every spring where I would sprawl and dream. I believed in toy army men and the bunker my brother and I had built for ours in the back yard. I was maybe seven or eight years old. But my brain was already working overtime.

Obsessing. Over-analyzing.

Nowadays, they have medical names for this condition. OCD, ADD, ADHD. Things like that. Back then, no such labels existed. We called it hyperactivity or an active imagination. At worst, stupidity. The only remedy for it was corporal punishment. At least, according to my parents.

In the case of the Nicene Creed, however, my only punishment was insomnia.

The Nicene Creed is one of the earliest Christian creeds, an apologetic borne in answer to heresy. Written in 325 AD by a council of bishops and revised in 381, some have described the creed as a yardstick of orthodoxy. Apparently, a Libyan presbyter in Alexandria named Arius was stirring it up, declaring that even though the Son was divine, he was still a created being. This wasn’t the first or last time Christological mystery would cause someone to blow a fuse. Nevertheless, it posed a serious challenge for the fledgling church and the braintrust set about codifying the nuances of the maturing apostolic faith. What emerged was a document that condenses the canon of Christian mystery into pithy lyric, and resoundingly affirms Christ’s deity and eternality. He was, the bishops declared,

eternally begotten
God from God
of one Being with the Father

For someone already prone to over-thinking, this was dangerous stuff. Even so, the phrases seemed to spill nonchalantly out of the mouths of my fellow congregants. Did they realize what they were reciting?

But it was one specific line that settled in my brainpan:

begotten, not made

That phrase nagged at me. How could anything be “not made,” I wondered.

I tried to walk that idea back. Past myself. Past my parents. Past the present age. Past the dinosaurs, the molten earth, and the Big Bang. Out into cold black primordial space. And beyond. To a Person who was uncreated, “not made.” So what came before him? If he made all things, nothing could have come before him! But if nothing came before him, where did he come from? Something can’t come from nothing, especially if that something was as complex and inscrutable as this eternal God.

It turned bedtime into a terrible affair.

I would lay awake at night thinking about the one who was “begotten, not made,” thinking about why I was even here to think such things. Was this great Unmade One aware of me lying on my bed staring at the ceiling? Even if I was just a microscopic particle of “all that is, seen and unseen,” he was its Maker, so he had to know about me. But if he knew about me, he also had to know about my neighbors, their parents and grandparents, and every child under every thatched hut on every savanna who was slowly dying of malnutrition. Perhaps he had lost track of us all amidst the stars and plankton. That would explain a lot. Including why we needed to awaken him from his cosmic slumber with the smell of burning incense and the singsong Latin incantations of a grouchy old man.

Anyway, it resulted in full-blown insomnia.

Long after those days, my older son, Christopher, has reminded me of a conversation we had in my truck when he was about six or seven years old. I had simply asked Chris what the last letter in the alphabet was. Impromptu quizzes were a regular teaching tool when my wife and I were child rearing. I believed that asking random questions, unexpectedly, about miscellaneous subjects kept my kids on their toes and developed their critical thinking skills. So in response to my question, Chris promptly began reciting the alphabet. When he arrived at Z, he happily shouted the answer. “Okay,” I said. “So what’s the last number?” His excitement slowly gave way to befuddlement. The cogs in his brain appeared to be grinding. I wondered where this was going. He said, unconvincingly, “one hundred?” Then his appearance grew grim. “One hundred one,” he muttered. “One hundred two.” I came to his rescue. “There is no last number,” I told him. “Once you think you’ve found the last number, you can add one more to it. And another. And another.”

He confessed to me later how much that realization troubled him; it introduced a new paradigm—the possibility that something could have no end. In that case, numbers.

I must confess, it’s somewhat comforting knowing that other people brood over such nebulous ideas. They lose sleep over theories, abstractions, and big concepts. That was encouraging. I mean, nowadays the average person doesn’t seem especially bothered by mathematical or scientific conundrums. We insulate ourselves with concerns about other important things, like designer sunglasses, automobile rims, celebrity rehab, daytime television, and the next iPhone incarnation. But the last number in the world? Who cares?

Chris would go on to become a high school math teacher, writing his thesis on Poincare Duality, a theorem involving numeric sequences. Knowing this now makes it easier to appreciate his youthful anguish.

In my case, however, it wasn’t math problems that kept me up at night.

It was theology.

Looking back, it is fitting that God disrupted my world through paradox. But what does one do with a child who is burdened with the concept of God’s eternality? I’m not sure most parents know how to answer that question. Nor am I certain there is anything you can do, anything that works—at least in the sense that drain cleaner works or a frontal lobotomy works. Perhaps the fact that some children wrestle with such metaphysical questions should give us hope. Maybe we aren’t all wired to the concrete and comprehensible.

My parents offered no intellectual assistance for my theological narcosis, just a myriad of homespun cures for insomnia. We tried tea, warm milk, cold showers. But nothing worked. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t shut my brain off. The great Unmade One had found me and would not relent!

This would be my first, but by no means last, encounter with biblical paradox. At that age, however, I did not possess the capacity to process such complexity.

Two things happened then to save me from sheer madness.

First, I was forced to let it go, to concede that some things were beyond my ability to comprehend. God had to be one of them. How could God or the Universe be understood completely anyway? That would be like asking an aphid to understand Einsteinian space-time theory. Besides, I couldn’t waste my childhood searching for an answer that might not even exist! If I didn’t want to become a babbling half-wit and get trapped inside my own head, I needed to resign God to another category.

It was a surrender, a crucial resignation to something much bigger than me. Amazingly, that same form of surrender has since helped me grapple with many a mystery. It’s become a template for mental rest.

Odd, isn’t it, that a concession to finiteness and incomprehension may be the gateway to eternity.

I heard a story once about a young student who approached an old rabbi and asked, “Rabbi, in the old days, there were people who saw God. Why is it that no one sees God anymore?” The rabbi responded, “Nowadays, no one can stoop that low.”

I wonder that part of the hubris of us humans is the belief that, not only can we know everything there is to know, but that we are entitled to know it. Perhaps this is an unintended fruit of our scientific age, the belief that everything is a material or chemical process that can be measured, quantified, and adjusted. Maybe it’s faith in ourselves, a misguided belief that our mental faculties can rise above the processes that produced them. I don’t know. Perhaps we are missing God not because we can’t reach high enough, but because we can’t stoop low enough.

Either way, I grew to realize that no amount of fretting or contemplation could make the mystery of God more understandable. I was spinning my youthful wheels. Call it Providence. Maybe it was just maturation. Whatever it was, I came to realize that the only answer was surrender.

Then there was Daisy.

Daisy was my first dog. A terrier mix. A mutt, really. She was made to sleep with me and did this faithfully for years, curling at the foot of my bed, providing companionship until my weary mind finally succumbed to sleep. This is probably how I became so fond of dogs. They don’t seem to worry about how God could be uncreated. It is more important to them that they remain loyal and occupy the foot of their master’s bed. Long after I’d come to grips with the Nicene Creed, Daisy developed cataracts, went blind, and had to be put to sleep.

Her friendship was invaluable.

It’s hardly a formula, but conceding mystery and the companionship of a dog has since helped me survive many theological conundrums and sleepless night. It’s also caused me to wonder how many other very ordinary, simple things, are bestowed for our own peace of mind.

And for theological resolution.

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5 Ways to Write Believably about the Unbelievable


I recently listened to a podcast interview with Andy Weir, the indie author who struck it rich with his sci-fi novel The Martian. Being that Mars has not been colonized, the book is classified as “speculative.” But only just barely. Because the science is in place, The Martian occupies that strange grey area between actual […]

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Writing Update Fall 2015


Last weekend marked the end of a very busy year for me. No, the year’s not over yet. But I’m feeling like I can finally breathe a little. And concentrate on my next big writing project. That project is Book Two of my Reagan Moon novels. For reasons I’ll explain, I was unable to devote a […]

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Hearing from Readers of “Christian Horror”


Since I published Christian Horror, I’ve heard from a good number of believers who enjoy the horror genre, but think it’s either incongruous with their beliefs or are simply concerned with its perception among their evangelical friends. For example, I received this nice message from a Facebook friend: Hey Mike! I know you don’t know me, but thanks for […]

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The Feminizing Effects of Fluoride


It’s well known that high doses of fluoride can suppress testosterone production. Which is why I’m guessing  that defenders of the recent New York Times’ piece, 27 Ways to Be a Modern Man, regularly brush their teeth. But why should an article on “modern men” need defending? I mean, everybody gets that “The Male Code” is something that needs “broken.” How […]

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Looking for “Deeper Meaning” in Our Fiction? (Or “A Lesson in Branding”)


I received an interesting review of The Ghost Box the other day. The review was titled, “A great story, but it lacked the deeper meaning I was expecting” and followed by a three-star (actually 3.5, but you can’t do half-stars on Amazon) rating. The reader said, If I was giving a rating based on the […]

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The Crossover Christian Novelist: Horror Author Kevin Lucia


As part of my ongoing series on Christian creatives in the general market, I was thrilled to catch up with author KEVIN LUCIA. Kevin’s stories have appeared in numerous outlets including Shroud magazine, Cthulu Mythos, and Shock Totem. His most recent novel, Through a Mirror, Darkly, not only has a killer cover, but has been receiving […]

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Notes from My Workshop “A Theology of Horror”


My workshop at the Realm Makers 2015 conference on “A Theology of Horror” was very well-attended. But, man, it just flew by. We had a few technical problems and less than an hour to cover 50-plus slides worth of material. I was speaking a hundred miles an hour and still only managed to cover half […]

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