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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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 writing rules. The standard line was, If you want to increase your chances of publication, you should follow these ______ (fill in approprite number) rules. I’m really rule-oriented, so I clung to these like a good Jewish boy would the Ten Commandments. However, the remainder of my time has been spent unlearning the rules. This doesn’t mean I don’t agree with those rules or don’t believe they’re helpful when applied. I’ve just discovered their relevance is pretty much limited to newbies (those unpublished) and within writers circles.

It’s sort of like a country club. Becoming a “member” of the club has a certain set of requirements (and cost). And once you’re accepted, specific rules of conduct and perks apply. Members have their own hierarchy and moving up in the pecking order is usually sought after. Of course, outside the country club, in the “civilian” world, these things don’t matter. Your membership in the country club does not necessarily benefit you at work, in the supermarket, or the public park. Being a country club member mainly matters to other members.

Writers can have a certain country club mentality. There’s dues you pay to get into the club and once you’re in, garnering more recognition from your peers becomes important. There’s even a temptation to write for other members of the country club. However…

Most readers are not members of the country club.

That’s one of the big discoveries I’ve been making. Following all the writing rules may earn me kudos from other country club members, but they don’t do much for “civilians.” Which sort of brings it all back to who I’m writing for. And how I’m reading. You see, if I read like a writer (i.e., a member of the country club), I tend to struggle with violations of the rules. It’s when I read like a reader, a civilian, a non-country club member, that I most enjoy myself.

So while getting props from my country club brethren is cool, it’s connecting with the average reader that I find most satisfying. The hard part is writing for readers not writers. Especially when you’ve worked so hard to be part of the country club.

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alien-priest 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 didn’t stop the Pope who, last Spring, made headlines when he said, if given the chance, the Church should baptize space aliens:

Pope Francis has said that he would be willing to baptise aliens if they came to the Vatican, asking “who are we to close doors” to anyone – even Martians.

In a homily yesterday dedicated to the concepts of acceptance and inclusion, Francis recalled a Bible story about the conversion of the first pagans to Christianity, according to reports on Vatican Radio.

He said Catholicism was a church of “open doors”, and that it was up to Christians to accept the Holy Spirit however “unthinkable” and “unimaginable” it appeared.

Describing how, according to the Bible, Peter was criticised by the Christians of Jerusalem for making contact with a community of “unclean” pagans, Francis said that at the time that too was “unthinkable”.

“If, for example, tomorrow an expedition of Martians came to us here and one said ‘I want to be baptised!’, what would happen?”

Clarifying that he really was talking about aliens, the Pope said: “Martians, right? Green, with long noses and big ears, like in children’s drawings.”

As expected, the Pope was applauded for his statements. Nonbelievers recognized it as a nod toward Science. Believers (of the more progressive variety, at least), recognized it as a gesture towards inclusiveness. After all, Martians are but one group in a long line of uncircumcised Gentiles which the Church should welcome with open arms.

Problem is, unless the Pope is skirting some of the doctrinal particulars of Catholic baptism, his alien friends will need to sidle up to the Gospel implications.

This guide describes Catholic Baptism as accomplishing five specific things:

  1. It forgives all sins that may have been committed prior to a person’s baptism including original sin, mortal sins, and venial sins, and it relieves the punishment for those sins.

  2. It makes the newly baptized person “a new creature.”

  3. It turns the person into a newly adopted son of God and a member of Christ. Baptism incorporates one into the Church which is the body of Christ.

  4. It brings someone into the flock of the faithful and brings them to share in the royal priesthood of Christ (1 Pet. 2:9-10). Catholic baptism gives a share in the common priesthood of all believers and it also brings about the sacramental bond of the unity of Christians.

  5. Last, but certainly not in the least, baptism leaves and indelible spiritual mark (character) of belonging to Christ on the soul. Nothing you can do will take away this mark even if you sin a million times. Those sins may not grant you salvation, but you will always carry the mark of a Christian on your soul, therefore making re-baptism impossible.

Catholics and Evangelicals differ on some important aspects of baptism. Either way, unless we consider extraterrestrials in the same category as infants, that is, spiritually naive, an appeal to their free will is necessary. Rarely — VERY rarely — does Scripture frame salvation as occurring apart from someone’s active pursuit and willing assent. Placing space aliens in the same category as infants goes against the common narrative of ETs as highly advanced life forms. I mean, if extraterrestrials are so darned smart, how could they not know about God, Christ, sin, and Satan? Unless, of course, you see such beliefs as optional. This also frames baptism as a magic wand which we wave over entire people groups to neutralize them against Original Sin. But that’s another story.

Here’s three areas that space alien baptism poses a potential problem for its supporters (and, well, space aliens themselves):

  • Baptizing space aliens would be an admission that they are sinners — If ETs are “sinners” who need saved then they are products of the Fall, stained by Original Sin, and spiritually separated from their Creator. If they’re not sinners, then why baptize them?
  • Baptizing space aliens would be an admission of Christ’s Lordship over them — Being baptized “in the name of Jesus” (Acts 2:38, 8:16, 10:48, etc.) is the ultimate surrender. In doing this, little green men (white, purple, and polka dot too) relinquish their autonomy to a new Leader.
  • Baptizing space aliens would be an admission of inclusion in a universal Church — Membership in the Body of Christ forges a “sacramental bond” with fellow believers, making ET part of a “royal priesthood.”

While baptizing aliens sounds cool and all, the devil’s in the details. You see, many of those who hail the Pope’s words have big problems with things like sin, Christ, and the Church. Who are we to impose our archaic, defunct religious views on such highly evolved life forms? So while we applaud the Pope’s progressive stance, the implications are problematic. At least for Martians unwilling to admit they’re sinners like the lot of us.

Personally, I would be thrilled to embrace a green, tentacled, planetary pilgrim as my brother or sister in Christ. But the real question isn’t whether we should be willing to baptize space aliens should they appear, but whether we will compromise our beliefs for the sake of interplanetary inclusion.

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PlayItRiskyThis 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. Surprisingly, I didn’t get that vibe from Tyler Huckabee’s post. In fact, it touched on a dynamic that, I believe, is very much at work in the Christian publishing industry.

Huckabee’s thesis is fleshed out in dcTalk, “unquestionably the decade’s [1990’s] greatest CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) success story.” The multi-platinum group regularly crossed over into mainstream venues like MTV and the Billboard charts. This success was, like much success, a perfect storm of factors. Not only was American culture less secular (meaning that songs about Jesus did not evoke immediate kneejerk negativity), but the band was able to adapt to the then-contemporary musical trends (see: grunge / rap / rock) while probing social and religious issues with “a daring edge.”

So where did it go wrong? dcTalk singer / songwriter Kevin Max framed it in terms of a withdrawal from, and failure to engage, the mainstream market.

“We were reaching out,” Max says. “We were trying to communicate to the non-believer as much as we were communicating to the believer. Today, when I listen to Christian radio and see the festivals and see what’s happening in the church, I don’t see a whole lot of that interactivity. Where I’m at right now, it’s almost like the doors have shut on the experimenting with lyrics and images and ideas to get people interactive.” (bold mine)

As the music industry began to change due to digital market and the empowerment of indies (changes that have also affected the publishing industry), Christian labels were forced to play it safe and take less risks. As songwriter / producer Matt Bronleewe put it,

“There’s not much room to fail anymore,” he explains. “And failure’s such a creative gift. When the ability to fail is taken away, it fuels a lot of fear. It narrows the pool of producers and writers to such a degree that there’s a sameness that starts to occur.”

But for an industry seeking to survive, “sameness” can be a godsend. Especially when there’s a market for it. For the Christian music industry, this “sameness”  came in the form of worship music.

The CCM industry began relying on sure bets, and the surest bet of all was what’s broadly known as “worship music” — songs people sing at church. Initially fueled by musicians like Chris Tomlin and Sonic Flood, worship has since become CCM’s primary export — a fact worship-focused bands like Hillsong United have leveraged into playing stadiums around the world.

While this shift has indeed kept the Christian music industry afloat, it has relinquished a hugely important (dare I say, even biblical) obligation — to crossover and engage mainstream culture.

…whatever CCM might have gained in throwing its fortunes in with worship music, it largely lost in its ability to sneak into the Top 40 or the occasional Now That’s What I Call Music! compilation.

For the most part, CCM artists have been content to either play it safe and hold onto their dwindling cut of America’s attention span, or strike out on their own and look for other outcasts.

The parallels with the Christian publishing industry are pretty obvious. Like CCM, the recession and the digital marketplace has forced publishers to “play it safe.” The result is a reliance on “sameness” and “sure bets.” In the case of CCM, that meant worship music. In the case of Christian fiction, that means women’s fiction. Which is why, the last 7-8 years has seen Christian publishers taking less risks and concentrating on what has always worked.

Women’s fiction is the life preserver that Christian fiction publishers have clung to.

From a business perspective, this seems like the smart thing to do. However, this approach — like CCM’s “throwing its fortunes in with worship music” — is not without consequence. I recently had some private correspondence with a Christian reviewer and reader who expressed a growing alienation with the Christian fiction industry. According to him, not only are Christian publishers virtually ignoring speculative fiction titles (which comprise a fairly small segment of the overall evangelical fiction market), but the industry has banked so solidly on conservative female readership that male readers are forced to migrate elsewhere. This, among other things, has also cost us an ability to be “interactive,” as Kevin Max put it, with mainstream culture.

Of course, it could be argued that the Christian music or publishing industry has no compelling requirement to target outsiders. It is made and marketed for the choir. In the case of Christian fiction, the choir consists mostly of conservative white females. To be fair, Christian publishers appear to be slowly developing more mainstream labels in an attempt to be more “interactive” with culture. Nevertheless, it is worth asking whether or not playing it safe will have more long-term implications for the Christian fiction industry. Tyler Huckabee considers such an approach to have “killed” the Christian music industry. Pursuing “sameness” and narrowing the margin of risk kept the industry afloat, but also left it bereft of any larger cultural influence outside its own circle.  Likewise, a similar question could be asked of the publishing industry: Is “playing it safe” killing Christian fiction? Its target readership will undoubtedly say “no.” But if the contemporary Christian music industry is any evidence, we might want to think twice.

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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 during my workshop. Here’s a sampling of how some of the authors answered this question:

How do you navigate being a Christian, having a “biblical” worldview, and obeying the call to “let your light shine,” while writing fiction for a general market audience?

Raven-by-Pauline-Creeden

PAULINE CREEDEN: “Even while the world is inundated with “sex sells” and an exploding erotica market, there are still many who are looking for family friendly fiction that is clean and not full of the dirt and grime in the world. These readers are not even necessarily Christian. As a dark fantasy author, dirt and grime still make their way into my fiction, but there’s always a light shining at the end of the darkness. It is horror with hope. And that is what the world needs. Hope. And isn’t that what we’re supposed to point to, the hope and the light?”

TOM PAWLIK: “When Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, he was answering the question: “Who is my neighbor?” The story doesn’t mention God, and the only religious people in it are portrayed in a negative light. And with a Samaritan as the one who rescues the protagonist, it was likely very offensive to most of those listening. Jesus wasn’t giving a gospel message, even though we can see it in the story. There is nothing directly spiritual in the story yet it has become so iconic. Christian authors don’t necessarily have to write about God to show Him in our plotlines or through the actions of our characters. Each author needs to wrestle with the specifics of their genre and Knife-RJ-Andersonsubject matter, but I believe it’s possible to write about ghosts or aliens (things that don’t fit neatly in a biblical worldview) and yet still tell a story that upholds Christian virtues.

It seems as if Christians want to rely on novels, movies or music to share the gospel with our unsaved friends, but we should be doing that in our everyday lives through our words and actions. Christian authors let their light shine by always striving for excellence in storytelling, not writing glorified gospel tracts.”

R.J. ANDERSON: “I don’t consider it my mission as an author to save people’s souls. I don’t believe I could do that even if I tried. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit, and He uses any number of people, situations, and influences to accomplish His purpose. My mission is to be a committed Christian writing the best fantasy stories I can write, out of the heart and spirit and wisdom that God has given me, and trust that somewhere along the way, He can and will use my writing—even if it’s just one book, or even one line—for His glory. And that’s why I write for the general market.”

JONATHAN RYAN: “One of the reasons I love the Bible is that it presents the world as it really is, not what we wish it to be. Sometimes, it gives us very ugly truths. People who get offended by Christian writers who show the world this way are saying more about themselves and their refusal to see the Bible’s portrayal of humanity. As long as a writer doesn’t glorify Ryan-Dark-Brideevil, then no topic is off limits.”

JOY DEKOK: “It’s hard, but in staying true to the story, I’m also able to stay true to my faith via minor characters who shine brightly although my main character may or may not come to belief in Christ – the reason? Not everyone does. It’s a funny thing – the comments about the book that have come to me privately talk about the way my faith shines through even in the life of my not so likable main character.”

KEVIN LUCIA: “I guess it depends largely on your perspective. Are you planning Sunday School lessons for those in the church to learn from, or creating art for all mankind to appreciate and enjoy? In my opinion, art (and even that’s so subjective a field), has a much stronger impact when it works through subtleties and thematic treatments. At the end of the day, people are probably going to easily guess my worldview and beliefs, based on the subject matter I choose to write about. There may not be anything inherently “Christian” about any of my stories, there may not even be any Christians in the story, and the stories may also be pretty dark and damn depressing, but they dwell Lucia-Devourer-of-Soulsconsistently on topics of faith, belief in a higher power or the existence of a higher power, good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, or the inherent flaws that humanity – humanity on its own  – suffers from: pride, anger, jealousy, vice, bigotry, hatred. To me, even if I use profane language or drug use or violence or even things of sexual nature to build characterization, if I’m highlighting humanity’s strengths – found in faith, belief, love, endurance, courage and bravery – or shining an uncompromising light on our weaknesses, I’m remaining true to my faith and my worldview.”

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I received lots of great feedback and wisdom from these and other authors about writing for the general market. Really, some terrific stuff. This is a small sampling of some of the material and ideas I’ll be discussing in my workshop this Summer. You can find out more about Realm Makers, its faculty and schedule, HERE. Hope to see some of you there!

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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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“Christian Horror” is Now Available!

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“Christian Horror: On the Compatibility of a Biblical Worldview and the Horror Genre” released this week. This is my first official non-fiction release. It’s a subject that’s been stewing for a while. My first two novels were released in the Christian market. One of the objections or concerns I repeatedly ran into among readers was, […]

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Realm Makers 2015 is Open for Registration!

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Realm Makers (RM) opened for registration this weekend. Described as a “symposium for people of faith who love science fiction and fantasy,” RM seeks to fill the noticeable void between the contemporary evangelical fiction market and speculative titles. The faculty is quite good and the prices are very reasonable (you can find out more details […]

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What Not to Say to Someone Who Has Been Hurt By the Church — A Response

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I read with interest a post in Relevant magazine that made the rounds yesterday. What Not to Say to Someone Who Has Been Hurt By the Church covers what the author suggests are “6 misguided responses to spiritual abuse.” Jonathan Hollingsworth admits to having suffered spiritual abuse. As a result, he’s seen victims addressed in […]

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Writing Update

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Things have been busy on the writing front. Glynn Young reviewed my short story anthology Subterranea at his Faith, Fiction, Friends blog saying, “What Duran plumbs here is the ‘subterranea’ of the human mind and heart. ” Reviews are slowly coming in for The Ghost Box. Austin Gunderson wrote a nice piece over at the […]

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