Goodreads Giveaway

by Mike Duran · 1 comment

GhostBox_3DThis week I’ll be giving away three autographed paperback copies of The Ghost Box at Goodreads. Publishers Weekly named the novel as one of the best indie titles of 2015 and with my follow-up releasing in several months, I figured it was time to start spreading the love. The giveaway is open to U.S. and UK readers, so all you Urban Fantasy fans across the pond can join in the fun. You can enter HERE for a chance to win. Good luck!

 

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business woman with palm upI was recently asked by another writer friend what advice I’d give to new, aspiring authors.  There’s lot of cliched advice one could give. Not that it’s irrelevant or untrue, it’s just the kind of advice you’d expect — take time to learn the craft, study the market, hang around established authors, yada, yada.

One bit of writerly advice that isn’t mentioned nearly as often is this:

Learn what writing advice to ignore.

No. This isn’t necessarily good advice for a new author. Someone just learning the craft and becoming familiar with the trade should posture themselves to soak up as much advice as possible. Thing is, the longer you’re in this business, the more you should grow confident in your voice, your temperament, your idiosyncrasies, and your approach. Which will necessitate ignoring some advice. Of course, when ignoring advice you should remain gracious. Also, ignoring advice is not a license for being stubborn and close-minded. I mean, lots of us are or have probably rejected advice that could be beneficial. Nevertheless, there’s still a point at which moving forward in your career sometimes means ignoring people, advice or criticism.

I was reminded of this from a sports video that was making the rounds yesterday. It involved an exchange between two of the best players in the NBA. Steph Curry had just been announced as the MVP of the league when runner-up and former MVP LeBron James issued a slight dig. Curry’s response was short and to the point.

For the record, I am fascinated by how professionals navigate criticism and negative opinions. In fact, I believe us up-and-comers can learn lots by watching how professional folks deal with experienced, qualified critique from peers. In this case, LeBron needs no vetting. Any basketball player anywhere does well to shut up and listen when LeBron speaks. In this case, however, the now-reigning league MVP counters — “I’ve gotten really good at ignoring people.”

Writer friends, this is often great advice to follow.

Shortly before I published The Ghost Box, my first urban fantasy novel and first foray into the general market, I was seeking beta readers and received a request from a writer friend on Facebook. They just wanted the first 50 pages, which I obliged. What I wasn’t ready for was the flamethrower that would be their “advice.” Listen, I can handle sharp critique and even solicit it. Sure, I might not agree with someone’s honest opinion, but that doesn’t make it any less honest and worth considering. I may reject writing advice on the grounds that it doesn’t suit my temperament or approach. Or maybe I simply believe that particular advice doesn’t fit the story or the direction I wish to take it. Fine. However, the advice I received from this beta reader was personal. It was straight-forward and sharp, which I have no problem with. But it also bled negativity and antagonism. Not only did this critiquer call me out for possible racism and sexism, the author flatly said that I didn’t appear to understand the Urban Fantasy genre, should shelve “The Ghost Box” as a learning experience, and try another genre. It left me temporarily gutted. It seemed so off base, so antithetical to all the other advice I was getting from betas. For the life of me, this “advice” felt more like a missile aimed at my heart and intended to leave an emotional crater. This person was not objective, they had an agenda.

I was numb for a spell. And then I did what every good “professional” should do — I ignored it.

About a year later, Publishers Weekly selected The Ghost Box as one of the best indie novels of 2015.

Perhaps it was immature on my part, but I quickly remembered that critic’s advice, that I didn’t understand the genre and should give up on the novel. I didn’t feel smugly justified as much as it confirmed what I already knew — The best writing advice is to sometimes ignore writing advice.

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nature-sunset-person-woman“It started like most addictions,” Nancy (last name withheld) admitted. “Only, in this case, the pusher was my local Christian bookstore.”

Apparently, looking for “escapist” reads can be dangerous in today’s world. Especially if you’re an evangelical Christian. For Nancy, escaping into the world of Amish fiction became an escape from reality. “At first,” she said, “the stories about tight-knit communities where families sat around the dinner table without the distractions of television and cell phones, became a respite from my hectic schedule.” Soon, however, she found herself reading nothing but Amish fiction. “Men named Malachi and Lemuel became my Fabio. Instead of throwing a scantily clad female over their shoulder, it was a bale of hay. My Amish addiction was like mommy porn, only without the porn.”

Many have sought to explain the Amish romance craze among evangelical readers. Even with the trend recently slowing, it is estimated that Amish fiction comprises up to one-third of all Christian novels. Acquisitions editor Phil Short suggested that the going motto of Christian publishers has become, “When all else fails, put a bonnet on it.” While Short admits that the trend is an odd match for an audience typically picky about theological content, he conceded that in Christian publishing circles doctrinal integrity is often massaged by the bottom line. “It’s easy to justify catering to odd fictional trends when your house also publishes Bibles.”

According to religious sociologist Zola Smart, the factors that have bolstered the Amish trend among evangelical readers are the rise of hypermodernity, hypersexualization, and biblical illiteracy. “Culture’s hectic pace, the increase of incivility and sexual immorality, and the glut of technologies have propelled many spiritually weary readers to escape into novels about a simpler, purer way of life.” Compound this with a reactionary view of culture, a superstitious approach to holiness, and terrible hermeneutics, Smart concludes, “The exponential growth of Amish fiction among Evangelicals during the first decade of the twenty-first century cannot be understood apart from these ‘hyper’ cultural developments and Fundamentalist views of holiness.”

“I fell hard for Amish fiction,” Nancy acknowledged. “The twenty-first century seemed to be becoming less and less real to me. I would find myself daydreaming about a world without zippers, laptops, and profanity. But I was living in a fantasy world.” It was this realization that caused Nancy to admit she had a problem. “I was having withdrawals,” she confessed. “I couldn’t drive past my local Christian bookstore without thinking of young bearded Christian men in overalls.”

At first, Nancy was ostracized by her reading partners. Just the suggestion that Amish Romance could be an addiction which perpetuated a false caricature of the real world led to accusations of ‘worldliness.’ “They questioned my faith,” she said tearfully. “They insinuated that I was watching PG-13 movies and possibly even having wine with my dinner. It was painful.” But the heartbreak gave way to hope as Nancy eventually formed her own group for similar addicts. “Truth is, the devil doesn’t always appear with horns and sulfur. Sometimes he disguises himself with a straw hat, overalls, and rock hard abs.” While she does not recommend going cold turkey, Nancy admits that sometimes it’s necessary to simply avoid the ‘Christian Romance’ section altogether.

Now the Amish Romance Recovery Network exists to help other addicts, like Nancy. “You’re never ‘recovered,’” she said. “But always ‘recovering.’” And as for her goals? “One day I hope to visit a Barnes & Noble. Eventually, Lord willing, I might read a Military Suspense, Science Fiction, or maybe even a Classic.”

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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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Top 5 Clichés Christians Use About Their Writing

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This 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 […]

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Christianity’s Internal and External Witness

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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 — […]

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Why You Should Consider Registering for Realm Makers 2016

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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 […]

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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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