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deCOMPOSE

No-cursingA grisly death occurs near the end of my first novel The Resurrection which leaves a bad guy a bubbling heap of intestinal lard. During the final edits, feeling relatively self-conscious about this over-the-top retribution, I suggested to my editor that I tone that scene down, make it less gruesome. She replied, “I’d leave it like that. He deserved it.”

Interestingly enough, I almost pleaded with the same publisher to allow one of my characters to say “go to hell.” To a demon. They refused, saying that that phrase was unacceptable. My publisher refused to allow a character to say “go to hell,” while applauding another being melted into a mass of organs.

Yesterday over at Speculative Faith, Austin Gunderson reviewed a book entitled “The Apocalypse Door.” He concluded: “The Apocalypse Door flings open a rousing-yet-religiously-grounded entryway to the spiritual-thriller subgenre.” What I was not clear of was where this book stood in relation to Christian fiction. So I asked Austin on Facebook and he replied:

Theologically, the novel operates under a Catholic paradigm, so while *I* don’t consider it theologically sound, a Catholic reader likely would (the author, at least, has declared it to be doctrinally accurate, and I have no reason to doubt that it is, at least from his perspective). While I interpreted its thematic gist to be overt (at least by the end), the novel *does* contain a heck of a lot more ambiguity than I’m used to in “Christian” fiction, and it’s possible to view the protagonist’s interpretive conclusion as just that: his interpretation.

As for objectionable content, the novel contains graphic violence, mild language throughout (and a smattering of stronger language), and a scene of non-graphic sex (along with pervasive humorous innuendoes). So in that sense, it’d probably fit at the “edgy” extreme of the “Christian” fiction cleanliness spectrum.

I found it rather interesting that Austin used that phrase — “the ‘edgy’ extreme of the ‘Christian’ fiction cleanliness spectrum.” *Not commenting on whether “edgy extreme” is redundant. :-) ) For a “cleanliness spectrum” does indeed exist in the Christian publishing world.

One of the questions I had is why Catholic theology is less conservative regarding the “cleanliness spectrum” than evangelicals.

A while back, one of my posts got linked by a Catholic writers group. My post was about “clean fiction” and how that’s a defining factor of today’s Christian fiction. Anyway, I lurked the conversation and was a little embarrassed for us evangelicals. You see, the consensus among these Catholic authors was that

The issue of “clean fiction” is a uniquely Evangelical concern.

Then they proceeded to rattle off names like Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Graham Greene as examples of how Catholic novelists managed to write “spiritual classics” without having to niggle over the issue of “clean fiction.”

A while back, in a discussion about Christian speculative fiction and where it’s heading, I suggested that “‘bad theology’ has shaped much of mainstream Christian fiction.” Or as Tony Woodlief puts it his article Bad Christian Art, “poor Christianity” inevitably “yields bad Christian art”:

I’m convinced that bad art derives, like bad literary theory, from bad theology. To know God falsely is to write and paint and sculpt and cook and dance Him falsely. Perhaps it’s not poor artistic skill that yields bad Christian art, in other words, but poor Christianity.

After almost a decade of involvement in the Christian fiction industry — reading Christian novels, writing Christian novels, interacting with industry reps, authors, and readers, attending Christian conferences, and blogging — I’ve concluded that a larger set of presumed “biblical tenets,” a religious worldview, aggressively shapes mainstream consumers’ understanding of Christian art.

The Evangelical art industry, as it exists today, is reflective of bad theology.

One reflection of that “bad theology” is our tolerance for violence, but intolerance of profanity. Or in regards to the book Austin reviewed above, the language and sexual innuendo would disqualify the book from the “Christian fiction” ranks long before the “graphic violence.”

If you’re an author aiming for the Christian market, it is far easier to write about one character shooting another than cussing them out. Rather a quart of blood than a cup of expletives. Just peruse the Christian fiction section of your favorite bookseller and you will find your share of serial killers, hit men, assassins, abusers, and wannabe anti-christs plying their trades. But I dare you to find one character who ever says “shit.”

So why is this? Why does it seem Christian readers are more tolerant of violence than profanity?

Now, by being “tolerant” of violence, I am in no way suggesting that there is a glorification of violence or an excessive amount of it. Indeed, in relation to the general market, violence and gore in Christian fiction is minuscule. Cursing, on the other hand, is non-existent. So while there has been much discussion about violence and profanity in Christian fiction, somehow, somewhere along the way, a concession was made for violence and against profanity.

I have two theories about why, in Christian fiction, violence is more tolerable than cussing.

First, the presence of violence and bloodshed in the Bible allows us to condone the presence of violence and bloodshed in our stories. The typical argument is that the world is a violent place. Christians aren’t immune to death, disaster, and criminal behavior. So why should we scrub our stories of it? Likewise, Scripture tells of wars, dismemberment, torment, and grisly crimes. Of course, the Bible does not go into graphic detail. We are told that David removed Goliath’s head, without a play-by-play of the hewing. Either way, it happened and our minds are left to fill in the gory blanks.

Furthermore, the Christian life is often viewed as a fight. We are described in militaristic terms, as soldiers and warriors; our lives are a real — sometimes viscous — struggle against forces bent on our destruction. The inclusion of violence in our fiction is an expression of our often hellish struggle to follow Christ in a dark, evil, world.

So my first guess is that Christian readers tolerate violence because the Bible contains bloodshed and violence, the Christian life is a battle, and Christian aren’t immune to the evils of our fallen world.

But why is there a more liberal approach to violence than profanity? Why show a hit man stalking his prey, a serial killer fulfilling his sadistic urges, without so much as a single expletive? I’m sure there’s several possibilities, but the one I keep returning to touches on theology, namely the “cleanliness spectrum.”

Contemporary Evangelical fiction is tethered to Fundamentalist roots. Much of the Christian art industry — Christian film / fiction / music — is a reaction against secularism. This posture can be traced back to early Fundamentalism’s withdraw from many American institutions like politics and entertainment. Holiness, for Fundamentalists, came to be defined in terms of “negatives” — no smoking, no drinking, no movies, no makeup, no dancing, etc., etc. Much of the evangelical counter culture was rooted in this cultural separation. Christian art became an alternative to “worldly” fare. As such, it was defined as much by what it didn’t have, as what it did. I think that’s still true today.

In this Fundamentalist “cleanliness spectrum,” some sins are just worse than others. Homosexuality is worse than gluttony. Smoking is worse than envy. Drinking is worse than gossip. And dancing? Let’s not go there. Consumers of Christian fiction appear to employ this “cleanliness spectrum.”

On the Evangelical “cleanliness spectrum,” profanity in our fiction ranks worse than violence.

In the same way that we inflate certain sins like homosexuality or smoking, we have inflated certain words. The flip-side, however, is that by cultivating this “cleanliness spectrum” we inevitably “deflate” or “diminish” other evils. Like violence.

Either way, we have come to believe that it’s worse to read a single expletive, than to read about murder or abuse. That’s why, for the Christian author, it is much easier to portray a drowning, a strangling, an electrocution, an assassination, or a mafia-style execution, than to simply have a character cuss. It is much easier to liquify your bad guy than to have him say “shit” as he’s melting.

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I’m an ex-pastor.

Ugh. I hate that term.

No, I didn’t have an affair with the church secretary or get caught pilfering funds from the ice cream social. I was a young, untrained, inexperienced Christian who was launched, probably prematurely, into the ministry. As a five year-old Christian, father of four, with zero trade skills, I started my own church. I was forced to learn theology on the fly, as well as preaching, counseling, administration, accounting, property management, vision casting, leadership training, community outreach, missions, and officiating funerals.

After eleven years, I was fried. The experiment came to an end and the church was disbanded. Some applauded my years of faithful service. Others gave me the finger. They were probably both right.

Fail-bookI slunk back into the secular workforce, scratching my head. Grieving. Second guessing. Lost. Was I the victim or the cause? Had the devil won, or was God still in control? Was I ever really “called” in the first place? What could I have done to prevent this humiliation?

Either way, I failed at ministry.

Because of this, I’ve been quite fascinated in a relatively new movement for pastors entitled Epic Fail. The purpose of the group is to create a place of honesty and vulnerability, where pastors can confess their struggles and be challenged with God’s idea of “success.” Unlike traditional pastor’s conferences, Epic Fail is not about the latest church growth model or celebrity pastor, but rather humbly admitting that there is no Super Pastor. It’s founder, J.H. Briggs, recently released a book on the subject entitled Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure. The back cover copy reads:

What do we do when we’ve failed? Some ministries are shipwrecked by moral failures like affairs or embezzlement. But for most of us, the sense of failure is more ordinary: disillusionment, inadequacy, declining budgets, poor decisions, opposition, depression, burnout. Many pastors are deeply broken and wounded, and we come to doubt that God has any use for us. J.R. Briggs, founder of the Epic Fail Pastors Conference, knows what failure feels like. He has listened to pastors who were busted in a prostitution sting or found themselves homeless when ejected from ministry. With candid vulnerability, Briggs explores the landscape of failure, how it devastates us and how it transforms us. Without offering pat answers or quick fixes, he challenges our cultural expectations of success and gives us permission to grieve our losses. Somehow, in the midst of our pain, we are better positioned to receive the grace of healing and restoration.

It’s no surprise, I guess, that this resonates with me. I’ve come to see my own ministry failure as a gateway to grace. I’ve learned so much about God, myself, and the Church through it. Not to mention, I probably would not be writing this, or be a writer at all, if I’d not left the ministry. All that to say, I like the idea behind the Epic Fail conference.

Nevertheless, it still makes me wonder how much “failure” the average pastor and congregant can really tolerate.

If the ministry scandals of the past have taught us anything, it’s that congregations deserve a full disclosure from those at the helm. But how honest about weakness and failure should your pastor be? Some say they want a pastor who is totally honest, accountable, transparent, willing to admit his faults and be up front about his failures. It is common nowadays for people to leave a church because of the charge of hypocrisy. The church is full of phonies, they say. We need pastors who are transparent and church members who are more open and honest about themselves, their struggles, and their doubts. But do we really want this? Especially of our leaders?

I sometimes doubt it.

One of the dumbest things I ever did during my years in ministry was to publicly admit I was burning out. Really, it changed the course of my pastorate. One Sunday after worship, I took the pulpit, closed my Bible, pulled up a stool and sat down. I told the people assembled there that I felt incapable of preaching; and so instead of “going through the motions” I confessed how burned out I was, how inadequate I was to lead the church, and how flawed I was as a man, a husband and a father. It was an awkward time, as you can imagine, but it ended with the congregation gathering around me in tearful, heartfelt prayer. We closed in worship and the service ended.

Neat, huh? Wrong!

Shortly thereafter, I received a letter from a member of the church. We don’t need to hear all the gory details about our pastor, he wrote. What we want is a good sermon, someone who can lead the church with confidence, not a weak, shamelessly transparent man. Mike, save your confessions for another time and place. With that, he announced his family, and several others, would be leaving the church.

So much for honesty and transparency.

In a way, I don’t blame them. If I showed up at a church expecting to hear God’s Word preached only to have the pastor sniveling about his struggles, I probably wouldn’t be back either. But it creates a genuine dilemma for church-goers. On the one hand, we say we want openness and honesty from the pulpit. On the other hand, when the dirty laundry is aired, we cringe and run for cover. We want pastors who are human, but not human enough to air their doubts, foibles, and failures. Of course, no one would advocate for a lack of openness or genuineness from spiritual leaders. However, the opposite may be just as unhealthy.

Anyway, I’m not surprised that my confession caught some people off guard that day. It was the wrong thing to do, something I should have shared only with the elders. Then again, maybe that was the price of having a young untrained Christian at the helm of a church.

It seems fitting that Christ would not enlist supermen, but paradoxical followers, full of quirks and frailties, as his spokespeople. But as much as I appreciate the heart of the pastors at Epic Fail, it begs the question of how much vulnerability and weakness the average church-goer is willing to tolerate in their pastor.

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“All fiction is largely autobiographical…”

                                            — P.D. James

I suppose the question facing a lot of novelists is not IF your story should be autobiographical, but HOW autobiographical your story should be? It’s no secret that novelists assemble their stories from the stuff of experience, drawing from the places they’ve lived, the people they’ve met, and the lessons they’ve learned. Of course, this could be a tad unnerving when a relative discovers themselves speaking through one of your characters. Especially if that character is a pompous ass or a goody two-shoes.

I used to hedge at this notion. You know, I believed I could separate myself and my experience from my tales, forge characters from starstuff, as it were. Let alone, keep my family out of the telling. Silly me. Now, with a small, but growing, canon of stories behind me, my life is littered everywhere. At least, for those who have ears to hear.

One such “telling” came by way of Avram Davidson’s Adventures in Unhistory. Subtitled Conjectures on the Factual Foundations of Several Ancient Legends, the book covers the historical or (pseudo-historical) underpinnings of such basic mythological iconography as mermaids, werewolves, mandrake roots and Prester John. It’s a fun read and one that has sparked several conceptual brush fires in my noggin.

One was Vocal Memnon. It was just a reference in Davidson’s book, maybe a paragraph in passing, but the story intrigued me. So I did some research of my own.

memnon1

Vocal Memnon were two 60 foot Colossi, carved of quartzite sandstone and seated in the Theban necropolis, along the Nile River near modern day Cairo. The statues had been commissioned by one of the Pharaohs to guard a sacred memorial temple. However, an earthquake partially destroyed one of them, fractured it in several places. From that point on, it sang every morning at the break of dawn, at least according to legend, a moan or whistle probably caused by temperature change or evaporation. (The scientific term is Solar Thermal Automata and the concept has been used in the development of specific audio technologies.)

subterranea_fullEven more fascinating was the mythology that arose around the singing Colossi.

And this is where Vocal Memnon intersects a couple of my stories. For instance, I have included the myth in my short story Consonance (which is included in my anthology Subterranea) as well as in my second novel The Telling. What’s my infatuation with this odd archeological trivia? The Vocal Memnon myth embodies something autobiographical and deeply personal to me.

Cleo, the cephalopod-like extraterrestrial in Consonance explained it this way:

“…pilgrims flocked there. They said the lucky ones—the ones who heard [the Colossi singing]—got healed, prayers answered, wishes granted, things like that. For hundreds of years it went on, singing at sunrise, padding its stats, performing for all those sad lost souls. And then it stopped. Just never uttered another sound.”

She wandered to the vanity, swung one of her trunks over her shoulder, and toyed aimlessly with the knuckles.

“But why?” She stared quizzically into space. “Why, after all that time, does the singing stop?

The protag of that short story eventually unravels the myth by discovering his own gifting — a gift that heals and helps others.

It sang from its brokenness, isn’t that what she’d said? The Colossi, shorn of its majesty only to find glory in its diminishment.

Singing from brokenness. Finding glory in diminishment.

Perhaps I have an inflated sense of self-worth. But I’ve grown to feel that — I feel insecure even saying this — God has given me a gift that can help and heal others. The problem was / is that that gift only functions through brokenness. I had to / have to diminish and be made low for the singing to start.

Which is why this line, toward the end of my second novel The Telling occurs. It is spoken by one of my secondary protags, an exhortation to the scarred and troubled young prophet Zeph Walker, who is finding his way home:

“Sing!” Little Weaver shouted. “Sing, Brother Walker! Out of your brokenness, sing!

Few, if any, would know what I’m referring to in those snippets. But having stumbled through life, fallen out of the ministry, railed against God and resisted my calling, any goodness that comes out of my life now seems like a song of brokenness. Like Jacob wrestling the angel, God has “blessed” me with a limp. Thus, I must find glory not in acclaim, but in diminishment.

Lord, let it be.

So, yeah, my fiction is autobiographical. How about yours?

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I spoke with a writer friend who recently returned from a book festival. He had his own booth to sell his books and commented on the different ways people decide if a book is for them. There are five types of book buyers from his observation.

  • The “back of the book” readers who consider the story synopsis
  • The cover-art-sold-me-readers
  • The endorsement page inspectors
  • The read-the-first-page-readers (this includes those who opened to a random page in the middle of the book)
  • The combo form of the above 4 methods

I’m definitely a

  1. First page
  2. Cover art

person. If the writing looks solid and the cover looks good, I’m already to third base.

Of course, some have turned book buying into a virtual science. Take this comprehensive Power Point 2010 Survey of Book-Buying Behavior presented by the BEA. Not only do they statistically break down “avid readers,” their “purchasing behavior,” and the outlets they prefer, the survey charts the “Primary Factors in Book-Purchase Decision” (see graph below). “Author Reputation” and “Personal Recommendation” are at the top of the list. Interestingly enough, “Price” is the next most important factor, followed by “Reviews” and then “Cover Artwork / Blurbs.”

Slide_31

I would definitely move cover art up on my personal ranking scale. But that’s just me.

The gals over at Bookslut, in a post entitled How to Choose a Book by Its Cover, whittle it down to these six components:

  • Cover artwork
  • Cover Font
  • Back Blurbs
  • Description
  • Author Photo
  • The Spine

Of course, a lot of things have changed in the 12 years since that post was written. Namely, the digital revolution has made books spines less meaningful.

In a way, I almost hate to admit that I WILL choose a book by its cover. I hate to admit it because, for the most part, the cover design of a book is usually out of an author’s control. Unless the author is actually designing her own cover, she still must surrender to another artist’s eye. Yes, good books can withstand bad covers. And bad books can unjustly benefit from good covers. But the bottom line remains: Good covers sway book shoppers. For better or worse.

I’m writing this because I’m in the throes of planning my next self-pubbed release. My going theory is that, apart from the story itself, which I control, cover art is the next most important thing. Investing in a good cover is hugely important for an indie author. Your book cover is front and center, an emblem of your commitment to the reader. Of course, there is the subjectivity quotient. What I think is a good cover, you might dislike. Then there’s the reality that good covers can’t make bad stories better. Meaning, one can go overboard in believing good covers improve novel sales.

Question: How important is good cover art to you as a reader? And how important is good cover art to a novel’s sales?

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I found Pew Research Center’s most recent study Political Polarization in the American Public quite fascinating. It’s a lengthy, graphic-laden piece about “How Increasing Ideological Uniformity and Partisan Antipathy Affect Politics, Compromise and Everyday Life.”

There’s much to think about regarding the findings. The overall gist is that, politically speaking, America has grown even more polarized. Not a surprise.

Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades. These trends manifest themselves in myriad ways, both in politics and in everyday life. And a new survey of 10,000 adults nationwide finds that these divisions are greatest among those who are the most engaged and active in the political process.

This group — “those who are the most engaged and active in the political process” — is most important to understand. First, because they often shape the debate and its tone. They are the most informed, politically active, partisan of any group. Secondly, however, they are also a minority, comprising only 21% total of Americans.

About one-in-five Americans (21%) are now either consistently liberal (12%) or consistently conservative (9%) in their political values, up from just one-in-ten in 2004 (11%) and 1994 (10%).

While this group of consistent ideolgues is growing, those in the Middle, in the “partisan gap,” remain the largest group in America.

To be sure, those with across-the-board liberal or conservative views remain in the minority; most Americans continue to express at least some mix of liberal and conservative attitudes.

If this is true, then why do the vocal partisans seem to dominate the news and the political process? If only one-fifth of Americans are on the polarized fringe (Left or Right), why do they seem to dominate the discussion?

Two reasons. First, those in the “ideological middle” tend to be politically apathetic and much less politically active than their fringe counterparts.

…those who express ideologically consistent views have disproportionate influence on the political process: They are more likely than those with mixed views to vote regularly and far more likely to donate to political campaigns and contact elected officials.

…many of those in the center remain on the edges of the political playing field, relatively distant and disengaged, while the most ideologically oriented and politically rancorous Americans make their voices heard through greater participation in every stage of the political process.

In other words, it’s that 21% of rabid partisans that drive most of the debate. But secondly, those on the polarized fringes are more given to propaganda and less open to compromise and opposing POV’s, making the Middle all the more anemic. Much of this is due to an echo chamber effect. Or to put it another way,

“Ideological silos” are now common on both the left and right.

The ideological silo is that community of like-minded believers that gather around partisan watering holes. Whether it’s a website, a TV network, a pundit, an online community, an organization, or a news outlet, these “silos” dispense the kindling which fuels its minority army. The ideological silo is where one can go to get mobilized for action and informed about the latest bogie man. All the while, the majority of less partisan Americans look on, disillusioned by the rhetoric dispensed on both sides.

While the Pew article suggests that the engagement of the Middle is the key to more healthy politics, I can’t help but feel that for some of us, less feeding at the trough of those “ideological silos” is a step in the right direction. Perhaps, instead of gravitating to those “news sources” and pundits who simply affirm everything you believe, and/or want to believe, entertaining an opposing view would do us all some good. Ideological silos exist to reinforce and further some status quo, or at least, to demonize its competitors. Less consumption of the product these mills are providing could go a long way to empowering the Middle, if not shrinking the fringe.

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Some Thoughts on Annihilationism

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I have been leaning towards “Annihilationism” for a while now. (As if I needed one more thing to tweak my Evangelical friends.) This is the belief that souls do not suffer eternally in hell but are extinguished or destroyed. Annihalationism is not so much counter to the traditional evangelical view of everlasting torment (that would […]

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Do “Christian” Artists Get Unfairly Reviewed?

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I am biased towards Christian artists. Especially those working in the secular marketplace. I want them to succeed. Which is one reason I’ve been following Scott Derrickson’s career with interest. Derrickson is a director with some significant films to his credit. I first took interest after watching The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a well-crafted, truly […]

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Christian Filmmaker: “Message Before Story”

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Supporters of Christian fiction often rebut the charge of having an “agenda” on the grounds that “all fiction has an agenda.” It’s a point I pretty much agree with. Most stories have a moral, a message, a point, or a theme, and those that don’t are little more than abstractions. (However, it can be argued […]

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Good Churches Make Good Pastors

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While watching the recent NBA Finals between the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat, one broadcaster openly questioned how good of a coach Erik Spoelstra (of the Heat) was. Noting the professional caliber of his players, the announcer suggested that LeBron James and Co. are easy to coach. Which leads to an interesting question […]

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Memoir Excerpt

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Writing a memoir is a lot like walking the shoreline of the sea after some great storm, collecting bits of wreckage or debris and assembling the tale from the pieces. When I started writing my memoir back in 2012, I had an idea where I wanted to go with it. Well, as I’ve sifted the […]

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Interview w/ Biblical Scholar / Zombie Novelist Eric Ortlund

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Eric Ortlund teaches Hebrew and biblical studies at Briercrest College and Seminary in Saskatchewan, Canada. He’s also fascinated by modern fantasy, horror, and ancient myth. Eric has interwoven these disparate interests into his new novel, Dead Petals. Zombie tales and Biblical scholars fascinate me, especially when they collide. So I hunted Eric down and grilled […]

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On Defending YA Fiction (and Why It’s Mostly Adults Doing It)

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One sociological theory suggests that how people dress is indicative of a society’s trajectory. The theory goes like this: When the lower class try to dress like the upper class, a society is on the incline. When the upper class try to dress like the lower class, a society is on the decline. In other […]

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