all-saints

At that moment, I knew — although the word know seemed so feeble in describing the certainty I felt — that everything Ellie had said was true. My father had seen it too, this land just beyond the great river. I was here because of them. And others.

Surrounded now by a great cloud of witnesses.

A single tear coursed my cheek. In later days, I would describe it as a baptism of sorts. That tear, washing me of my unbelief.

— Excerpt from The Ghost Box, Chapter 25

The Ghost Box is not Christian fiction. But there’s lots of Easter eggs for the faithful. One is found in the scene above. In it, an important character dies and Reagan Moon, my snarky hero, with the help of some peculiar old goggles, is able to watch that character’s soul actually leave their body, bound across a “golden river,” and begin a sojourn into a new, glorious estate. The experience is a turning point for my spiritually skeptical protag.

In the novel, I use a phrase that’s lifted straight out of Scripture. Here’s the verse it was taken from:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us (Heb. 12:1 NIV)

So Reagan Moon realizes that his own life is a “race,” that others have gone on before him, and that he is “surrounded by… a great cloud of witnesses.” In the previous chapter (Heb. 11), the biblical writer listed the long succession of saints and martyrs that have preceded us — Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Joshua, Rahab, Samson, etc., etc. Hebrews 11 is often called the “Hall of Faith” because of the vast array of “witnesses” it describes. The imagery is that of a coliseum filled with the faithful departed, a “great cloud of witnesses” who are looking down upon us, urging us forward.

Question: Is this imaginary or actual? Are the saints of the past actually looking down upon us, witnessing our travails, cheering us on, or is this simply a metaphor used to encourage us to “follow in their footsteps,” so to speak?

I tend to see this, and similar biblical images, as literal. That somehow, in some fashion, the holy dead are aware of the living. No, I can’t confidently say that this is a “proof text” for such a position. Nor do I think there IS a definitive one. Nevertheless, I don’t think the Scripture definitively states that the dead have no knowledge of the realm of the living. In fact, I believe just the opposite.

I realize this is an uncomfortable position for many evangelicals. We have this penchant for demystification. Unexplained phenomenon is best cordoned off behind cautionary Scriptures. It’s why ghosts, for example, are typically viewed as demons in evangelical circles. The notion that a disembodied soul can impinge upon and/or interact with our dimension is unsettling. If not flat-out heretical. Of course, the Bible is clear in forbidding necromancy, consultation with the dead, and the seeking out of occult seers and mediums. That’s indisputable. Nevertheless, there are several biblical occurrences that lend some credence to the idea that deceased saints are aware of the living.

  • The “spirit” of Samuel — The most famous and perhaps the most puzzling “ghost incident” in Scripture is Saul and the Witch of Endor (I Samuel 28). When Saul compels a seer to summon the prophet Samuel, they witness “a spirit coming up out of the ground” (vs. 13). The spirit is recognized as the dead prophet who seemingly validates himself by prophesying against Saul and predicting the king’s death in battle (vss. 16-19). Not only does the encounter suggest that the holy dead exist in close proximity to earth, but that they are conscious, and aware of a timeline of events, both past and (possibly) future.
  • The Mount of Transfiguration — In Mark 9:2-8, two dead prophets—Moses and Elijah—manifest alongside Jesus. Scripture is unclear as to their state, being that they appear neither ghosts nor resurrected bodies. Complicating matters is the fact the prophets “were talking with Jesus” (vs. 4), interacting within an earthly timeline and a physical estate.
  • The Rich Man and Lazarus — Because this is a parable, we must be careful not to force too much literalism into the tale. Nevertheless, in Luke 16:19-21, Jesus tells the story of a rich man who dies and is sent to Hades “where he was in torment” (vs. 23). From this state, the rich man appeals to Father Abraham to “send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment” (vss. 27-28). If we assume Jesus is illustrating a real condition in the afterlife, then the deceased rich man remains conscious after death, aware of his five brothers, and requests they be reached in “real time.”
  • The souls under the altar of God — The Book of Revelation offers up a remarkable glimpse of heaven, in particular after the opening of the fifth seal of wrath the apostle John sees “under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?'” (Rev. 6:9-10) Again, some may object on the grounds that Revelation is largely metaphorical. Even so, we are given a picture of souls who are at rest, conscious, quite aware of a timeline of earthly events and awaiting the culmination of their avenging.

These verses aren’t enough to make a slam dunk case that a real cloud of deceased witnesses is really aware of us and cheering us on toward the finish line. Conversely, I’m not sure there’s an airtight case against such a point of view either. In fact, some faith traditions view the “Communion of the Saints” as not simply a metaphorical fellowship, but a vibrant reality.

In his book, For All Saints: Remembering the Christian Departed, N.T. Wright says this:

By the end of the fourth century some believed that the presence of the martyrs’ relics in their midst conveyed what one writer has called ‘the veritable and gracious presence of the martyrs themselves, and through them of the Godhead with Whom they were united.’ The church on earth believed itself privileged to enjoy an intimate fellowship with those who had gone on ahead. Hilary and Augustine, in the fourth and fifth centuries, both elaborated this doctrine.  The angels and saints, the apostles, prophets and patriarchs, they argued, surrounded the church on earth and watched over it. Christians here are to be conscious of their communion with the redeemed in heaven, who have already experienced the fullness of the glory of Christ. this, or something like it, is the doctrine which we affirm when we say ‘the Communion of the Saints’ towards the end of the Apostles’ Creed. (For All Saints: Remembering the Christian Departed, N.T. Wright, pg. 16)

Of course, this view can give rise to beliefs such as prayers for the dead and even purgatorial indulgences. But in the broader sense, All Saints Day and the Communion of the Saints is built off of a clear biblical idea that

  1. Deceased saints are conscious after death
  2. Deceased saints are at rest
  3. Deceased saints are in fellowship with God
  4. Deceased saints have some awareness of the living and the present
  5. Those who ‘die in the Lord’ enjoy fellowship — both present and future — with the saints

While there is no biblical precedent for praying to departed saints, the recognition that we are “privileged to enjoy an intimate fellowship with those who [have] gone on ahead” and should “be conscious of [our] communion with the redeemed in heaven” is rooted in Scripture and church history. So I suppose the bigger question isn’t whether the dead are aware of the living, but what forms our “intimate fellowship” and “communion with” the “great crowd of witnesses” should take.

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The rods of Moses and the Magicians turned into Serpents -- Image source: http://www.mythfolklore.net/lahaye/049/LaHaye1728Figures049ExodVII10-12RodsIntoSerpents.jpg

The rods of Moses and the Magicians turned into Serpents

A while back, I received this letter from a pastor who follows my blog. At the time, he was unfamiliar with the debates inside Christian writing circles concerning speculative fiction, the use of tropes containing magic, and the characteristics of Christian fiction in general. That changed when he entered the ministry:

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 create (inadvertently?) a “magical” scoring system to sanitize our fiction for “discerning” readers.

Before I proceed, let me back up and clarify. The reason I placed the word discerning in quotations above is not because I advocate for ignorance. The Scripture is clear about our need to “test the spirits” (I Jn. 4:1), “test everything” (I Thess. 5:21), and “have [our] senses trained to discern good and evil” (Heb. 5:14). Because of this, I applaud the congregant above who asks the question. At least they are taking such biblical charges to heart. In fact, it could be said that the reader / cultural consumer who never asks hard questions about their literary and visual diet could find themselves worse off than the individual they decry as puritan. So in this sense, taking seriously the commands to be critical and discerning of what we put into our mind is healthy.

Nevertheless, there’s a couple problems with the approach and/or conclusion reached by this discerning congregant.

For one, many “Christian” things — not just fantastical stories — can be twisted to “promote the occult.” A good example could be the story of the bronze serpent in Numbers 21:6-9. A plague of serpents was sent among the rebellious Israelites. God provided a way of escape from this punishment by commanding Moses to build a bronze serpent on a pole. Whoever looked upon this image would be saved. However, years after this incident we learn that the bronze serpent was being worshiped and in a series of reformations, King Hezekiah destroyed it.

He removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan). 2 Kings 18:4

This story illustrates what is all too common among our fallen species — we worship what we shouldn’t. In many cases, even good things, sacred things, or simply neutral objects, can be deified. Whether its religious icons like crosses or statues, people whom God has used, or even systems and rituals, just about anything can be vested with a “power” never intended.  Point is, fictional magical powers aren’t the only things that can be used for occult purposes.

In fact, that approach itself can become a type of superstition. Let me explain this by asking 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. Or more clearly, NOT defining it. Thus, to the more conservative Christian 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, “magic.”

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, and enchantment are only tolerable in Christian fiction as long as we’re clear where they are 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 heretical 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.

Truth is, if Aslan had explained that the power came from Jesus Christ he would have been lying. Why? Because Jesus never breathed on the faun. You see, fauns aren’t even real. And neither is Aslan. So how can we say Jesus breathed life into Tumnus the Faun? Such a charge carries its own sort of blasphemy in assuming that a fictional character can be attributed with the actual power of Jesus.

(To be fair, some have pointed out the difference between allegory and fantasy fiction. The Christian claiming her story as allegory is more bound to theological rigor as it is intended to parallel some existing doctrinal truth. This is the grounds upon some object to The Shack. So this may or may not apply depending upon one’s view of Narnia, its mode of fictional transport, and how far one is willing to turn Tumnus from a fictional faun into an allegorical archetype.)

Such discussions can quickly become an exercise in endless hair-splitting. So let me return to my basic point: 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 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. Which means staff charming is up for debate.

The concerned congregant above (and the “anti-magic” crowd in general), go astray when they focus on forms of magic (levitation, incantations, objects, staff charming, breathing upon petrified fauns, etc.), more than the purveyors. 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 internal assessment and potential ambiguity.

Either way, no amount of attribution can prevent some readers from misinterpreting you. Heck, even the Bible is misinterpreted to say things it doesn’t. So why should our stories be any different? The truth is, readers can potentially mistake anything I write about as endorsing something I don’t.

 

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meme-1This past weekend I was privileged to be part of the faculty for the Orange County Christian Writers Conference (OCCWC) 2016. I had a great time and met lots of cool people. Writers are odd enough, Christian writers even more so.  You see, Christian writers have their own cluster of cliches and secret ciphers known only to “initiates.” Not only do we often speak in “Christianese” about our writing, but we’re always dragging God into the biz. Of course, I’m not suggesting that Christian writers leave God on the stoop when they write or market. The problem is when we over-spiritualize the craft and use God as a scapegoat for procrastination, unprofessionalism, and even lack of sales. Like the person who believes God’s “given” them a story and “called” them to write (#5), but are treating that “God-given” story and God-breathed “calling” as if it was optional. Like Moses at the burning bush they find excuse after excuse for either a.) shining or b.) doing a crappy job on what Heaven has laid hold upon them to do. You know, because of the kids, their job, their health, their school — whatever — they just can’t follow through. They say they’re “waiting on God” for the “right timing” but they’re really just waiting on God to sit down at the keyboard and write the darned book for them. Listen, if God’s really  “called you to write,” He wants YOU to learn the craft and make the time to do it, and do it well. Maybe you should stop “waiting on Him” and put your hand to the plow. Anyway, that’s just one example of the unique, sometimes screwy approach that Christian novelists bring to their craft.

And there’s more where that came from.

This last weekend reminded me of the many ways we Christians attempt to hijack God, “baptize” our writing with the “spiritual” seal of approval, and conveniently justify mediocrity. Having frequented Christian writing circles for some time now, I’ve heard all the spiritualized slogans we believers like to regurgitate. So here’s my Top 5 clichés that Christians use about their writing.

5.) “God’s called me to write.”It’s funny how God never “calls” Christians to be plumbers, landscapers, nursery workers, ad agents, or write obituaries for the local newspaper. After all, being “called to write” sounds way more spiritual than being “called to clean toilets.” And then there’s the issue of discerning a genuine “calling” from your own inclinations or dreams. I mean, couldn’t your “call from God” really just be a desire to see your name on a book cover, in a bookstore? Or maybe you’re just wired to write in the same way a chef is wired to cook — it’s not so much a divine summons as it is in your DNA.   

4.) “It just wasn’t God’s will that I… (fill in the blank).” “God’s will” is a favorite “out” for Christian writers. Most often, the saying is followed by things like “find an agent,” “sell a lot of books,” “get published by a traditional press,” “finish the manuscript,” or “advertise aggressively.” Authors love to leverage this against “God’s called me to write,” as in, “God called me to write the book, but I guess it wasn’t His will that I sell very many.” Poor God. I wish He’d get His act together so your career can finally flourish.

3.) “Marketing is not my spiritual gift.”Then you might reconsider #5. Unless God’s also “gifted” you with spare change to hire publicists and marketing strategists, it’s best to assume that if God wants you to write novels, He also wants you to find readers. It’s amazing how many Christian writers feel called to the mountaintop to hear from God only to justify leaving the sacred tablets unread. Perhaps the “call to write” also comes with a “call to market.” Hearing from God means getting the docs into people’s hands. It doesn’t require a spiritual gift, just effort. Funny how hard work can make up for the absence of “spiritual gifts.”

2.) “I want to glorify God in my writing.”Usually this is code for “clean,” alternative, G-rated fare containing redemptive resolutions, biblical references, salvation events, spiritual themes, or subliminal Bible messages imbedded in the story. The question I have is whether God is also “glorified” in a good, well-crafted story. If we can only “glorify God” by specifically writing about God, quoting Scripture, making sure our characters don’t curse and, if they do, get saved by the end of the tale, we reduce God-honoring lit to simply religious tracts. If a Christian writer can only glorify God by writing about explicitly “Christian” stuff, then freelancers, sports reporters, obit writers, corporate copywriters, trade magazine columnists, and even game coders had better find some other way to “glorify God,” because they can’t do it in their writing.

1.) “I write for an audience of One.”Sounds great. But unless He’s also giving you direct revelations, critiquing your novels, correcting your grammar, dialog, characterization, and plot elements, and buying your books, all this means is that you never have to answer to anyone but yourself.

So there you have it! A quintet of cop-outs. My advice to Christian writers: Maybe it’s time we stop over-spiritualizing our craft, hanging the blame on God, and just start digging in.

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Public Domain, Caravaggio – The Incredulity of Saint Thomas

Christianity, unlike the Eastern religions I was weaned on as a young adult, appeals to and requires both physical and historical evidence — archaeological discoveries, geographical locations and recorded customs, real figures and events, written history, laws and instruction — as well as heart change, spiritual transformation, and personal revolution. The balance between those two — Internal and External witness — is incredibly important to the validity and uniqueness of the Christian faith.

As a spiritual seeker in the late 70’s, it was Eastern religion’s lack of historical, external, rational grounding that inevitably left me unsatisfied. In his book, Autobiography of a Yogi, when Paramahansa Yogananda speaks of things like gurus levitating or transporting, it inspires but rings somewhat hollow. Why? There just isn’t enough actual evidence for it. Whereas, in the case of the Resurrection of Christ for example (the central claim of Christian testimony), there were over five hundred witnesses (I Cor. 15), many of whom would go on to be martyred, substantive documentation of the names and events in question, as well as references to verifiable customs, locations, and figures. Furthermore, the alleged event propelled a ragtag group of followers without political or financial clout to explode onto the historical scene and quickly become one of the world’s great religions, influencing human history in more ways, perhaps, than any other.

Pursuing enlightenment (or detachment) — a central tenet of many Eastern religions — is an entirely subjective experience. As a spiritual seeker in the late 70’s, tail-end of the 60’s counter-cultural shifts, most of my religious / spiritual experiences had been subjective. It was research into the authenticity and reliability of the Bible which rocked my world. I quickly discovered that there was more to Christianity than just a bunch of outlandish claims made in a dusty old document. There was objective evidences! Of course, this didn’t make Christianity infallible and absolutely compelling. I mean, many people look at the evidence and reject the claims of Christ and Scripture. However, it was Christianity’s emphasis upon subjective and objective evidences that made it both open to criticism and, ultimately for me, satisfying.

I’ve since come to believe that Christianity, unlike other world religions, presents a significant, compelling balance between objective and subjective witness, reason and intuition, proofs and faith. Or to put it another way, Christianity appeals to both meta-narratives and micro-narratives—meta-narrative being a grand, all-encompassing story, theory, or point, micro-narrative being a personal, individual story that may or may not buttress the bigger point. However, those external evidences (biblical meta-narrative) didn’t mean much until I had an internal experience, change of heart, revelation (personal micro-narrative).

Some (perhaps most) religions rely heavily on internal evidence for their validation. I personally know quite a few Mormons. If you ask a Mormon how they know Mormonism is true, they will often mention a “burning in the bosom” experience. This internal witness is incredibly important to the average Mormon’s testimony. While evangelical Christians consider Mormonism heterodox, Christians often (I think mistakenly) approach their faith in a similar way. They will say, “I believe Christianity is true because I know it in my heart, I’ve changed, and God has spoken to me.” Of course, God may indeed have spoken to them! But how is this any different from the Mormon, the Hindu, or the Unitarian Universalist who makes a similar claim? The problem is obvious: Any beliefs can be justified if they don’t require external validation.

On the other hand are religions that rely too heavily on external evidence, tradition, or custom. There is no revelation required, just compliance; a shell of ritual devoid of transformation. Yet when you ask for validation, persuasion is lacking. So an angel spoke to Mohammed or Joseph Smith. So Buddah was enlightened. So the Maharishi spoke to an ascended master a long, long time ago. So the fundamentalist cult leader claims he is receiving direct messages from God. The question is how are these claims to authority and revelation tested? How is Mohammed’s credibility as a prophet tested, Buddah’s status as an enlightened master validated, or Christ’s claim to deity verified?

Of course, this does not mean that the objective, historical evidences for Christianity persuades everyone and can’t be challenged. As Pascal suggested, God provides us with enough evidence to believe, but not so much that we don’t need faith. Once again, it’s a balance between the internal and external. And this is one thing I find uniquely compelling about Christianity: It respects the fact that I am both a physical and a spiritual being, my head and my heart need engaged. Jesus Christ actually lived, performed miracles, and rose from the dead. But he still requires my faith and says I must be born again.

We are in danger whenever we lose this balance and emphasize the subjective, experiential elements of Christianity over the objective, rational elements of Christianity. Or vice-versa. A religion that is built entirely upon a historical event but lacks transformative power is flawed and inevitably bound to lifeless tradition. Conversely, a religion that is entirely about enlightenment without any grounding in reason or external evidences, is not worth believing.

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Last year, I attended Realm Makers for the first time. In fact, I was privileged to teach two electives there. There’s a bit of a story behind our intersection. While my first two novels were published in the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association), I have for years vocally expressed concern about the lack of representation of the spec genre in Christian publishing circles. This goes WAY back. For example, in 2010 I asked  Why ‘Supernatural Fiction’ is Under-Represented in Christian Bookstores and also conducted a Speculative Fiction Panel in which I queried about the state of the spec genre in Christian publishing and why, with the genre’s prolific representation in mainstream culture, it was so poorly repped in Christian circles. After attending the ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) conference in Dallas in 2012 (that was my third or fourth writers conference), part of my “debriefing” included these thoughts:

Christian publishers have absolutely no idea what to do with speculative fiction. Or YA. Both are a very thin slice of the industry pie and often a marketing headache. A couple examples. Randy Ingermanson was one of the first authors to write speculative Christian fiction (some novels over a decade ago). He admitted he was planning to edit the books and re-introduce them into the general market. Why? Because spec-fic doesn’t sell well in the CBA. Another example: During the agent panel I attended, the question arose about YA lit and the agents’ response was sort of meh. In fact, Rachelle [my agent] mentioned that one of her teenage daughter’s all-time favorite series was Lisa Bergren’s River of Time (the first which won the 2012 Christy Award for best YA) which was later dropped by Cook… before the series ended. Her daughter was heartbroken. Bergren has since self-published the remainder of the series through CreateSpace. It’s a sad reminder of how orphaned those who write genres other than Romance or Historicals really are.

Issues had been brewing for some time between mainstream CBA / ACFW loyalists and writers of speculative fiction who continued to feel like misfits trapped in a parallel world of Romance and Amish fangirls. Even the Christy Awards, the premiere literary awards for Christian fiction, dropped their speculative fiction category saying that there simply were not enough entries. The Christys later re-introduced a “Visionary” Category which encompassed all the speculative fiction subgenres. This did not soften the continued sense that speculative fiction was an odd fit in contemporary Christian publishing circles.

In 2012, after attending the ACFW conference in Dallas, things appeared to come to a head. After a brief run-in between the spec cosplay crowd and the ACFW staff (which you can dig around elsewhere for), “the board [was] set, the pieces [were] moving,” to quote a famous wizard. Of course, I did the curmudgeonly thing and challenged spec writers to get more serious. I suggested Maybe It’s Time We Hung Up the Ol’ Spock Ears, and my ears were roundly boxed. Sort of. Anyway, here’s what I wrote:

It’s bad enough that Christian publishers are unsure what to do with speculative fiction writers. But must we compound this by acting like outsiders?

The first ever Christian writers conference I attended back in 2006 had a workshop for speculative fiction writers. Frankly, I was a little embarrassed to be in it. Why? Not only did it seem a tad cliquish and groupie-ish, next to the cerebral, visionary sci-fi and fantasy writers I’d come to love, these folks seemed liked goofballs.

And it didn’t help that some of them were wearing costumes.

Yes, I know that conventions and conferences draw out the nerds. And there’s nothing wrong with wearing a toga or brandishing a foam sword to the banquet. If dressing up like C3PO and rolling out the British accent is your thing, go for it. Also, I realize that spec writers dwell in a sort of perpetual Neverland, seeing the world through a unique prism of imagination that Historical Romance authors would run, shrieking from, with petticoat girded appropriately. Yeah, I get all that.

But being that Christian speculative fiction writers already seem out of place in the industry, it doesn’t help our cause to act so… out of place.

This kind of give-and-take, along with the angsty noodling of people who enjoy dressing up like elves and robots, finally gave way to something that had been in the works for a while. Realm Makers held its first ever conference in 2013. Including staff, roughly 90 participants attended. Pretty good for a first-time effort. The two years following has continued to see significant numerical growth (I believe that last year attendance was in the 150 range). Logging this kind of progressive growth is an important indicator of the health, vision, and relevance of a fledgling organization like RM.

According to their vision statement, Realm Makers exists,

To provide a faith-friendly symposium for writers and artists, focused on science fiction, fantasy, and all their sub-genres. Whether participating artists wish to gear their content for the inspirational or mainstream marketplace, they have a place at Realm Makers.

So while the tenuous history between spec authors and the CBA / ACFW may play a part, RM is less a reaction against and more a response to a much larger vision. What Christian spec authors have been saying for the longest — that speculative fiction is a powerful and popular genre for readers and writers across the faith spectrum — is the power source behind the RM steamship. While it is acknowledged that mainstream Christian fiction is a viable genre, with many fine authors, serving a valid purpose, we also wish to acknowledge the vast, under-represented lovers of faith and speculative fiction who often feel displaced by the consensus demographic of mainstream publishing.

Possibly the best reason I can give for considering to choose to attend Realm Makers 2016 is that developing relationships with other writers who have similar faith and fiction passions is incredibly important. Look, I am not a big conference person, I lean more to introvert than extrovert, don’t do cosplay, can be socially awkward, and take stress meds. (Wow. This makes me sound like a head case!) I taught two electives at last years’ conference. It was my first time in attendance. I was nervous. I sweat a lot. Yes, it helped that I knew so many people from online interaction. But that also contributed to the nerves. Nevertheless, by far my biggest takeaway was meeting and interacting with so many cool people. Yes, being yoked by our penchant for the weird played a part. It’s a big relief to be able to mention Miskatonic University or a Rancor without being looked at like a loon. However, the sense of camaraderie and curiosity and friendliness is what lingered. Sure, this is probably the same spiel given by many conference reps. However, I found it to be hugely important. I know many writers are like me — not a big people person, prefer to stay home and read or write, somewhat socially awkward. But let me encourage you — Not only are writerly relationships important, but you may have more to offer to someone else than you think. So first I’d suggest that developing relationships with other writers who have similar faith and fiction passions is a huge thing.

Which leads to a second reason I’d suggest you consider registering for RM2016 — Developing long-term industry connections is huge to your writing career. At this stage, RM is “small” enough to provide access to many talented and influential people. Last year, I rubbed shoulders with Robert Liparulo, Tosca Lee, Steve Laube, Kirk DouPonce, Dave Long, and others. These kinds of relationships can prove incredibly valuable to a long-term writing career. (No, I’m not elevating Ben Wolf to celebrity status quite yet.) Perhaps my biggest surprise was when Donita Paul said that she’d read my blog. Gulp! There’s plenty of attendees who will not fit the “celebrity” bill (sorry Ben), but can be valuable travelers along the journey (I hope this doesn’t come off as me suggesting to we “use” people to climb the ladder of success, cause I’m not.) Aspiring cover artists, great editors who are just now forging a career, future beta readers and online critique partners, even indie press publishers will all be relatively accessible during the conference. In fact, one of the neat things about RM (and one reason they’re able to keep their prices low) is because they utilize university campus facilities and dorms (this years’ is Villanova). Because most attendees bunk in the dorms, it allows for lots of after hours discussions (something I’ll be doing more of this year). All that to say, RM is a great place to meet industry folks and develop relationships with like-minded authors and editors that could prove valuable to a long-term career.

Finally, let me go out on a limb and say that the reason RM has shown continued growth over the last three years is because it has identified a genuine niche. Christian artists have long embraced the speculative genres. Whether it was George MacDonald’s fairy tales, Tolkein’s epic fantasy, or C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy, believers have often seen the spec genres as a powerful tool of apologetic and inspirational storytelling. Which is one of the reasons why spec’s under-representation in the Christian market is so troubling. You can find plenty of conferences on speculative fiction — DragonCon, ComicCon, etc., etc. However, conferences that seek to integrate issues of faith, a biblical worldview, and theology with sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, are virtually non-existent. At the expense of sounding like an infomercial, RM may be tapping into an important growing trend in Christian art — equipping and populating mainstream culture with “Christian” voices, ideas, representatives, and stories of the speculative, fantastical genre.

Anyway, there’s a few reasons why I think you should consider attending Realm Makers 2016. Yes, I’ll be teaching there again. (You can see my class descriptions HERE.) Yes, I’ll definitely be bringing my stress meds and appearing socially awkward. And, no, I won’t be dressing up like Robin Hood. (However, I may wear my Marvel socks.) Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to meeting new friends, seeing “old” ones, and encouraging a new breed of author to blaze new trails. You can register HERE.

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I Like Big ‘Buts’ — An Evangelical Counter-Argument to Sex & Nudity in Cinema (Pt. Three)

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I’ve divided the common evangelical arguments against watching sex and nudity in film into these four: “Would you let your mother, spouse, or child do that?” — The Golden Rule argument “But the images on the screen are REAL.” — The Nudity Isn’t Fake argument “Seeing naked people on screen causes people to sin.” — The Seeing […]

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Is C.S. Lewis’ ‘Space Trilogy’ a Good Example of ‘Christian Speculative Fiction’?

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C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy is often viewed as one of the earliest and best examples of what “Christian speculative fiction” could look like. It’s only reasonable for Christian authors to want to reclaim their literary heritage. But is this a fair comparison? In one sense, it is. The inclusion of biblical imagery and ideas is the most […]

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I Like Big ‘Buts’ — An Evangelical Counter-Argument to Sex & Nudity in Cinema (Pt. Two)

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As I pointed out in Pt. 1, a healthy prerequisite to a discussion about sex and nudity in cinema requires evangelicals to avoid rhetorical caricatures of “opponents” (as either prudes or pervs) and their motives and intentions (“So you’re championing sex and nudity???”). Having said that, let me engage the actual objections used by Gregory Shane Morris in his […]

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I Like Big ‘Buts’ — An Evangelical Counter-Argument to Sex & Nudity in Cinema (Pt. One)

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A few months back, Tim Challies posted a piece entitled Sex on the Silver Screen in which he argues that watching simulated sex scenes in films, and the assumed accompanying nudity, is categorically wrong for Christians to partake of. Challies concludes, The reality is, the Bible forbids what those actors are doing. If the Bible forbids […]

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Adult Coloring Books as New Age Evangelism?

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Adult coloring books are a thing. Some have even called it The Hottest Trend in Publishing. Nine of the 20 books on Amazon’s current bestseller list contain few words and belong to a genre that didn’t exist two years ago. Welcome to the biggest publishing craze of the year: coloring books for adults. More than […]

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Is Science Abandoning Materialism?

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The problem of consciousnesses has proved vexing for scientists. Where does it comes from? Does it exist outside the body? Has it evolved from material substances? The dilemmas with “mind as matter” are numerous. First there is the logical conundrum of whether or not a mind evolved from matter can be trusted with its own […]

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The Great Indie Stars Book Giveaway

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Publishers Weekly is currently featuring The Ghost Box in The Great Indie Stars Book Giveaway. Here’s more of the details: Join Publishers Weekly in celebrating the Indie Stars of 2015 with a book giveaway featuring some of BookLife’s best-reviewed titles. “This promotion allows us to celebrate some of the best indie titles from that last 12 […]

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