Sunday, November 24, 2002

No Questions Allowed

Why is it that in the church scene, if you ask certain questions, people look at you as though you just walked in without your trousers on? I mean, some questions aren't even allowed in discussion groups! I'll list a few examples -- but let me quickly say, lest you feel inclined to look at ME in that way, I am not raising these questions myself. They are the questions asked by people who presently feel alienated from today's church scene, partly because they aren't allowed to ask them, or if they do ask, they're expected to settle for a briefly worded explanation, such as, "The Bible says, blah blah blah. End of discussion." I'm talking about questions like:
-- Did Jesus REALLY die on the cross and rise the third day? (the inquirer cites either Islamic belief, or something about some deep dark secret location somewhere in France, closely kept under cover by the Catholic Church, or the Knights Templar, which is in fact the final resting place of Jesus, son of Joseph)
-- How do we know that the books of the Bible are all inspired by G-d, or if other books shouldn't have been included that weren't, or if some of the books that were, shouldn't have been?
-- How can we be so sure we don't reincarnate? What about people who remember there previous lives?
-- Why can't Christians be gay? (the inquirer either cites Bible references like John leaning on Jesus' bosom, or points out the existence of gay churches)
-- Is hell really eternal? Is it really the destination of every single person on earth who didn't choose the Christian religion?
-- Did the holocaust really happen? (inquirer cites data from Neo-Nazi sources that support their assertion that the systematic extermination of Jews during World War II didn't really happen)
...I'm sure you can think of many more.
My point is, by maintaining an environment in which such things are never to be questioned, even by the serious doubter, we're losing a whole generation, both by barring them from the front door, and by members slipping out the back.
According to an article in the WASHINGTON TIMES, October 18, 2002 FLOCK STRAYS FROM U.S. CHURCHES about a growing number of people who have lost their faith, and have decided that "their earlier choice [to follow Jesus] was no longer right", "... those who leave have often put in years, even decades, of dedicated service ... Others who 'drift away' from their earlier faith often cite logical contradictions between belief and everyday experiences ... Many are felled by a crisis of faith that sends people into agnosticism or antagonism. Others say their faith is irrelevant to their daily lives..." (I found the link to this article on the blogsite)
Could it be that we've forced people to keep up the mature, confident "know-it-all" front until they've finally buckled under all the pressure? The rest of us who haven't buckled under yet, are we trying so hard to hold on to what we believe, that we refuse to entertain questions? Are we, by our heroic holding of our forts, the ones thus maintaining this stoic "club house" atmosphere?
If so, we're both locking out the current generation that badly needs to see an example of TRUE FAITH, and we're burning ourselves out in the process. If the church were a place where doubts could be freely expressed instead of buried, just maybe, that could relieve some of the pressure, before some of us reached a breaking point in our walk with G-d. That would also make us better prepared to be honest and open and "ready to give a defence to everyone who asks ... a reason for the hope that is in [us], with MEEKNESS and FEAR" (I Peter 3:15). Meekness is something we certainly lack when asked uncomfortable questions, though we seem to be in pleanty of fear -- although I think FEAR OF G-D is what Peter had in mind, not the other.
But the key word I want to dwell on is "true faith". Mental assent to Christian precepts, however hard we cling on to them to maintain our corporate identity, is not true faith. Many of us began with true faith, but ended up in mental assent.
Faith is the opposite of fear. Real faith won't fear what questions people will ask. Mental assent does.
"Without faith, it's impossible to please G-d, because those who approach Him, must believe that He is, and that He rewards those who diligent seek Him" (Hebrews 11:6)
Real faith leads us into relationship. It's a seeking for Him, and having found Him getting to know Him. Knowing Him is a so much more secure place to be. That, of course, leads to opening up to one another. Mental assent only maintains status quo, and does nothing to break down barriers to relationship.
Faith is simple, but for many of us, keeping ourselves in faith, as opposed to mental assent can be an uphill battle at times. The secret is to keep at it. That's what the "good fight of faith" is (I Tim 6:12). The trouble with many of us is we've lost sight of that battle long ago, and have reverted to fighting to maintain our mental assent.
Faith is dependable. You can lean on it. We're afraid to lean on mental assent, out of fear of finding out that what we've held on to all this time wasn't real after all. To find out that G-d doesn't come through when we need him, or that Jesus really didn't rise from the dead 2000 years ago, would simply shatter our self identity. Should anyone actually venture to lean on their faith for any reason, mental assenters always gasp, "Presumption!" (what presumption really is, is thinking you have faith when all you have is mental assent).
Faith keeps us in the real world -- which is filled with people asking the kinds of questions I've listed above. Mental assent isn't strong enough to face the real world, so it keeps us sheltered in a fantasy world where those kinds of questions can't enter -- where those honestly asking those kinds of questions wouldn't want to enter anyway.
Because it's founded in the real world, Faith is based on the actual fact of what Jesus did for us in the real world. Mental assent is afraid, deep down inside, that if one were given the opportunity to travel backwards in time 2000 years minus 33, one just might not find the resurrected Yeshua of Nazareth showing Himself alive to His disciples. Rather, one might find either a Jesus who's still dead, or a Jesus who mysteriously avoided death, only to die naturally many years later, or someone who is the antithesis of who we believe in today. Therefore mental assent goes out of its way to avoid any argument that would possibly lead to that conclusion.
Mental assent is fearful that maybe what we believe in isn't true after all, but must still cling to it for dear life, because ones identity is wrapped up in it. We've been in it too long. We've gained a measure of status in the Christian community, and to keep it requires us to cling on to the tenants of the faith.
So, if we suspect that what we've been living on is mental assent, not faith, what do we do?
If we suspect that we're quickly losing our grip on this whole thing, and about to go the way of many others, what is the urgent first step?
Yeshua said, "Seek and you shall find...", "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness..."
If we seek Him, we'll find Him. But Hebrews 11:6, referred to above, says we must believe that He's there to be found.
But how do we believe when all we have is mental assent?
Often, we have just a teeny weeny bit of faith, but it's buried under a giant pile of mental assent. "G-d has dealt to each one a measure of faith" (Romans 12:3). The secret is to dig it out.
Some hints how to look for it:
Romans 10:17, "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by a word regarding Messiah." That can come from the Bible, or from a spoken word inspired by G-d.
Another place to look for it: In the New Testament, we often find faith listed after "repentance": i.e. -- Mark 1:15 "REPENT and BELIEVE the good news"; Hebrews 6:2 "...REPENTANCE from dead works, FAITH towards G-d...", a few places in Acts and others as well.
Repentance can involve a lot of different things depending on who you are. For the rich young ruler, it meant selling everything he owned, giving it to the poor, and following Yeshua. Yeshua required him to give up all his comfort and all his status in the world he lived in, and follow His idea of reality.
What about our status and comfort of the church world we live in? What about all the benefits we're clinging on to by holding our mental assent? ...our "good old boy" image? ...our title of "reverend"?
Maybe for some of us, this means throwing everything we thought we believed up in the air, being honest with G-d, and saying, "If you're real, which just a tiny bit of me genuinely believes you are, take all this and piece it all together again as faith. In the process, I'm willing to give up my standing in this pretend world I've been living in, and lose myself in the real world."
You won't really be lost, because the real world is where G-d lives.

Sunday, November 03, 2002

Letter to a Moslem

The following is an answer to an anonymous Moslem who wrote in to the discussion board of Next-Wave. His message was too long to reproduce here, was evangelistic (on behalf of Islam), and was signed, "Your Brother in Humanity". The following with a few edited changes, was a response. I decided to also post this here as an open letter to all Moslems. Footnotes are at the bottom.


I think the only appropriate way for me to begin this is with an apology:
I don't know your background, whether you are from the Middle East, from the Far East, from Central Asia, North Africa or a European who has embraced Islam. You no doubt feel, as I would acknowledge, that your identification with the faith of Islam makes you a son of Ishmail, just as my embracing of faith in Isa* [there are footnotes below], the Word of Allah**, makes me spiritually a son of Isaac.
For myself, I am only a spiritual son, not a natural offspring of Isaac (having come by faith in Isa, not a convert to Judaism). I therefore feel a debt of honour to the physical sons of Isaac and Ishmail. The book of Geneses records blessings for both Ishmail and Isaac. For the gentile nations, to which I belong, no blessing is given at all -- only an opportunity to receive a blessing through the sons of Abraham, as it says, "In you, all the nations of the earth will be blessed", and "I will bless those who bless you, and and curse those who curse you."
I'm afraid that we gentile believers in Isa deserve a curse both for our past and for our present sins against you, the children of Abraham. The Crusades are definitely a blotch on our history. In those dark times, we destroyed whole communities and slaughtered, without mercy, many more Moslems than can even be measured by the recent terrorist attacks. I realise that most Moslems are equally appalled by what happened to the WTC and other attacks, and do not consider terrorism as a good thing, but if that were to be used as a measuring stick, we Christians have still done far more wrong to the Muslim community than the Muslim have, to us.
That is only one example of our past atrocities against the children of Abraham. As for the present: We loudly sing "G-d Save the Queen" at our football matches, and then proceed to bash up anyone supporting the opposite team. We put "In G-d we Trust" on our currency, and with it we finance pornographic and blasphemous films and literature with which we corrupt the rest of the world, including much of the Muslim world.
Although these examples only cover the tip of the iceberg, and my knowledge of history fails me for more, please accept my humble apologies on behalf of the Christian community for our sins. I'm sure other members of this discussion board will also affirm this confession and apology.
Having said that, I must now allude to a point on which your religion doesn't agree -- in which Islam states that no mediator is necessary in order to gain access to Allah. Because of our sins against the rest of humanity, and against the Muslim world in particular, I find I have no choice but to acknowledge our absolute dependence on the intermediary role of Isa, the Word of Allah, in obtaining forgiveness for our sins. In light of what we have done, how we've miss-used the grace of Allah in the past, the only way I feel I can proceed is to humbly acknowledge that it is only because of His mercy that I deserve to be alive, let alone be talking to you. With that in mind please allow me to speak my heart:
Looking at us now, it's hard to believe that we were, once-upon-a-time, a simple down-to-earth Middle Eastern religion, similar to Islam. In fact, we were not a religion at all, in our own right, but only one of many sects within Judaism. Messiah Isa had revealed Allah to us in a more profound way than we had known Him before, and then, had opened up the way for us to come yet closer to Him -- closer than was possible through simple Torah observance (though we believe that Isa fulfilled the Torah in that regard, so that the final veil between Allah and man was lifted in a way stimulated by the Torah. Thus true Torah observance is the acknowledging of Messiah).
So, we began with a knowledge of Allah as revealed through Isa, Allah's Word.
I think we can be open and honest here. In describing Isa as Allah's Word, of course, I'm simply using a "Islamically Correct" phrase in place of the usual Christian usage, "Son of G-d". Islam states that Allah has no offspring, and no one can be referred to as a son of Allah. Whatever the assumption was, we don't necessarily think of Isa's "Sonship" as being the result of his birth to a human mother. Rather, we see it in the same sense as His being the "Word", spoken by Allah, emanated from Allah in much the same way that the rays of the sun are emanated from the sun itself. If it's only a matter of terminology, I have no trouble on my part in dropping the phrase "Son of G-d", for the sake of this discussion.
In using the analogy of the sun, I think we are on somewhat common ground. The sun, the closest star to earth, is so hot and so full of energy that a human could never even hope to approach it directly. Yet, the rays of the sun are the primary source of sustenance to all life on earth. You have no doubt noticed, in the West, our obsession with turning our skin dark so as to look more like Middle Easterners and North Africans :-) Driven by that, we flock to the beach on our days off, where we can enjoy pure sunlight, so we can come home with darker looking skin. Even though that's as close as we can get to it, we call it being "in the sun".
As the Word of Allah, Isa revealed Him to us in much the same way. In Jewish terminology, He would be the "Shechinah" of Allah, or the "dwelling" of Allah among us. The rabbis speak of the Shechinah of G-d being present among His congregation, or among the two who gather to study Torah, or three who sit to judge, etc. We believe Allah spoke His Word, which emanated to earth in same way as the rays of the sun, and became Shechinah, in the form of a person, Isa.
In those early days, we weren't so intent on defining things, but were content to simply bask in the Shechinah of Allah, in the same way as many today like to bask in the sun. We had come to know Allah as revealed in Isa, and that seemed enough for us, as it should be. As time went on, from being a simple Middle Eastern religion, we began to try to go "up market" by explaining it all to Greek and Roman minds. Oriental religion is of the heart, but Western religion emphasises the mind. We began to search for answers using our heads instead of our hearts, thereby becoming "Westernised". In trying to have it all figured out with our rational minds, and to protect ourselves from a barrage of rational ideas from just about every source imaginable, we came up with creeds. With it, we defined the "Trinity".
To be honest, I do not find any fault with the doctrine of the Trinity*** in and of itself. But I should clarify, the "Trinity" is not about three separate individuals who came together and decided to be "G-d". To me, the word "One" goes much further than the word "Three" in describing Him. It's just that, by offering a scientific sounding definition, people began to depend on what their minds could fathom instead of what their hearts told them. They began to apply it rationally, and began approaching G-d as though there were three gods, or a family of gods. It was very simple matter, then, to add Mary as a fourth member of the "family". That just about describes the state of things when the Prophet Muhammed began his career, so to me it's quite understandable that someone of his calibre would decide to throw out the whole thing and seek to find his revelation directly from Allah Himself. If the word "Son" were to be understood as being a part of a family of gods, then I fully understand the Prophet in his rejection of the idea of Allah having a son.
"One" is an apt description of G-d. If Isa is a part of the G-dhead, then he is inseparable from that oneness. Just as the rays of the sun can't suddenly decide to move to a different part of the universe, and have no more to do with the actual sun -- they would then cease to be rays, or anything for that matter -- so the Word of Allah could never be thought of in isolation of Allah Himself. At the same time, the sun, by its nature, must have rays, or it would become a black hole. Therefore, the sun and its rays are one. The Holy Spirit is the breath of Allah, and the Word is His Shechinah, or radiance. As for His being a person, I would say that Allah can be what He wants. The rabbis say that G-d creates angels, complete with personalities, simply by giving a command, and the angel formed by that command exists for as long as it takes to fulfil that command, and then returns and merges again with the substance of G-d****. Being One G-d isn't about His person-hood, whether one or many, but being One G-d.
The Torah says man is created in G-d's image. I think we could safely say man is a very simplified and abbreviated image of G-d. Man is at his healthiest when he is "one" with himself. Some people are diagnosed with multiple personalities, but such people cannot be described as being "one". Being abbreviated and simplified, that's all man was designed for. Man is limited, but G-d is infinite. Just as the sun is composed of pure energy and too hot and radiant for man to approach any closer than the circle of earth's orbit, so are G-d's ways far above our ways and His thoughts than our thoughts -- so much so that His thoughts could be animated with personalities if He chose. As many of such thoughts G-d would choose to have, they would all agree, as G-d is infinitely "one", far exceeding man's attempts at being "one".
I know you won't agree with most of what I'm saying, but at least I think it's a way of presenting our beliefs in a way that would be of least offence to your sensibilities, and show that Christianity honours Allah as a true expression of monotheism.
As far as I see it, that leaves only one other fundamental area of disagreement: the death of Isa on the cross, and His ressurection*****.
Unlike the issues I've discussed above, this is one that I cannot play down, skirt around, explain away or even apologise for. The "offence of the cross", according to Rabbi Sha'ul, is the offence that defines us. Before the Prophet arrived on the scene, it was already offensive. To the thinking Greeks it was offensive, to the organic Jewish mind it was offensive. Unfortunately, it also offends some of us!
The offence of the cross is the only offence we are allowed (indeed, required) to maintain, but our problem is, we've offended in just about every way BUT that. We've offended you in many ways, so that we now have no choice, before Allah, but to come to you in deep sorrow and repentance. But it is through the cross, our only legitimate offence, that we can, by humbly repenting, receive forgiveness and cleansing from all our other offences that are filthy blotches on our history.
I know that nothing I can say right now can make up for the evil that has been done in the name of Messiah. I can only speak for myself, but others of us continue to offend, with militant, nationalistic, racist attitudes towards the Moslem community, while continuing to flaunt sexual and moral permissiveness in a way that would make most in the Moslem world blush.
Yet, there is so much we could learn from you: your morality, your simple faith, your furverancy, your close family unions, honouring of one another (why, in Afghanistan, which we in the West consider the most "backward" of countries, the traditional family unit is still a remarkably solid foundation for society at large, and an example we should be studying for our own benefit). This is not to mention praying three times a day and fasting one month out of the year. Most of us Christians, if we pray once a day, or fast the whole weekend, we think we've achieved sainthood.
But my personal belief is, we are slowly learning that or own ways have got us nowhere. Our only strength is in the offence of the Cross of Isa, the Messiah. Once we learn to not be offended by that ourselves, but to fully rely on that for our strength, and our way forward -- as we thus learn the humility of Isa -- you will see a profound change in us.
In Isa, the Messiah,


* "Isa" is simply Arabic for "Yeshua", which is Hebrew for "Jesus". Jesus is believed by Moslems as a prophet, and as Messiah, and the Word of Allah.
** "Allah" is simply Arabic for G-d. Even Christian Bibles in Arabic and in Bahasa-Malayu and other Moslem languages use "Allah" as the generic term for the creator of the universe. The only fundamental difference in Moslem belief is their insistence that Allah cannot have children. I personally believe it is a mistake to insist that the Moslems worship a different god than the Christians.
*** Lest any of this is taken as questioning the doctrine of the Trinity, let me just clarify. What I'm saying is simply this: at that point in history, when we sat down and begin rationalising everything and laying down creeds, we lost our innocence.
At the time, it seemed like a necessary move, both to be able to explain it all to Greek and Roman minds, and to protect ourselves from a host of rationalists who tried to steer everything in a totally different direction (ie. Marcion, Arius of Alexandria, Nestorius and others). What SHOULD we have done? I don't know. I'm not even sure that had I lived then, I would have done any better. Never the less, we lost our innocence
Once we've lost our innocence, it's hard to gain it back again. That's why it would be a mistake, at this point in history, to try to backtrack and UN-docterinalise the trinity.
Instead of trying to UN-do 1800 or so years of ecclesiastical evolution, I'd suggest that the challenge for us now, is to try to see where our original innocence (that we lost) would have taken us, and try to steer a course towards that. That is, simply, a clearer revelation of G-d as revealed in Yeshua/Isa/Jesus.
**** That's not to say Isa is no more than one of many angels created by a command of G-d. As the Word of Allah, He is permanent in the same way as the rays that eternally emanate from the sun are permanently part of the sun.
***** Islam states that though the Jews attempted to crucify Isa, they didn't succeed, as Allah rescued Isa at the last minute, so He didn't die on the cross nor rise from the dead.

Sunday, September 15, 2002

Christian Authors -- Go for the Bigger Market Share

Here are some questions I believe every Christian writer of fiction ought to be asking him/herself before launching into another book:

Say, you were a marketing engineer, and you have a product that will sell. You know you could either advertise it one way so as to appeal to a vast audience, or else another way to appeal to a very limited sector of society: Which would you aim to do?

In the fiction market worldwide, which has the biggest market share, Christian fiction or secular fiction?

So, as Christian writers, why is it that we begin with the assumption that we must write only to please such a limited audience as the Christian reader's market?

Please note carefully: The question I am asking is not, should we as Christian writers conform to the world so as to please the world. The answer to that is obviously, no. Neither was Jesus, our example, conformed to the world, but His ministry reached the publicans and sinners of His day, much to the chagrin of the religious community that thought He should have targeted the limited audience of the "already righteous".

In actual fact, to simply conform our writing, or any other art form to the worlds standards would be the easiest path to take. Many of us take that route anyway with or without knowing it. Others among us finally give up and "backslide" into that mode. It is more difficult, to be sure, to stay within the yellow lines and write only what would be acceptable to the Christian reading public, producing books that conservative parents of the kids in our youth groups would approve of.

But the third way, the most challenging, is to write stories that would compete with the likes of Harry Potter, Star Wars and James Bond. J.R.R.Tolkein took that route, and the recent success of his trilogy, Lord of the Rings as a film is proof that it can be done. C.S.Lewis, George McDonald, G.K.Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, John Bunyan and Charles Dickens are a few others who took that route.

The reason this way is the most challenging is because to compete, one must not only be able to think up a good plot and give it the right action, but one must also be so full of what one has received in his or her Christian experience that it simply flows out and shows up in the story even when one isn't particularly trying to write a Christian story.

In the same way that a truly transformed Christian doesn't have to go around saying he or she is a Christian -- people around about just know it, so, a writer like J.R.R.Tolkein or C.S.Lewis simply writes what's in his or her imagination and people can see Christ in it.

Without judging the average writer for Christian markets -- it's too easy to take a good plot, make sure it's child safe, fill it with Christian terminology and maybe even a gospel message, and there you have it -- a book for the Christian market. It's like the Christian who has to drop phrases like "praise the Lord", paste Christian bumper stickers on their car and visibly pause to say grace before each meal, because without doing that people wouldn't know he or she is a Christian.

Again, I'm not judging. Many writers for the Christian market do display an excellent inner life. In fact, it is those writers that I'm attempting to challenge, by this tirade, to look to grabbing the bigger market share. And I include in that challenge, writers who have not yet been successful in the writing market, but feel writing fiction is a gift they must pursue.

So how can we possibly rise to such a challenge? Let's look at the challenge in the two parts that I stated four paragraphs ago: 1. think up a good plot and give it the right action; and 2. let our light shine through it.

Action and plot -- Last year, I did something that some in the Christian world see as controversial: I read the first two books in the Harry Potter series. I figured that if one lady could single handedly turn a generation of children back to books, there had to be something I could learn from her.

J.K.Rowling's stories move along very quickly. She places a challenge or a cliff-hanger every few (if not in every) chapter. There's the big challenge to be conquered at the very end, but there's also a long series of smaller challenges all along the way so that the reader doesn't have to wait all the way to the end to feel like he or she has had a satisfying reading experience. Of course she keeps them guessing how the big challenge at the end will turn out, in almost the same way as a who-done-it.

There may be other factors as well, some perhaps not so healthy, but suffice it to say that one big lesson we can learn from J.K.Rowling is, the day of long detailed descriptions is over.

The long wordy narrative used by Charles Dickens (It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the longest of stories, it was the shortest of stories because I stopped reading it right about that point), and even by J.R.R.Tolkein, which I patiently plodded through at the age of 13 (which I can't imagine very many 13-year-olds today doing), just won't do. Video games provide a much quicker thrill, and Ms Rowling wisely took that into account.

In Dicken's day, they didn't have TV or movies. Attention spans, even of younger children, were much longer then, and long descriptions of ordinary things got their imaginations going and filled a gap -- now filled by TV and motion picture.

Even in the sixties and early seventies, when Lord of the Rings began to rock the literary scene, TV was only just discovering colour, and you could sometimes spot the nylon string they used to hold up the model space ships against the painted starry backgrounds. The parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments looked like it was done in colour pencil. The most oft repeated words of children watching sci-fi or anything requiring special effects was "Oh man! That's so fake!".

Children were the hardest to fool, and they still are. But technology has caught up, not only with TV and films that make the unreal look very real, but now with video games in which children can actually navigate in realistic unreality (okay, virtual reality).

What I find amazing is that in spite of all that, literature has still proven to be such a powerful medium. It's just that we have a new set of rules to go by, that's all. But if we learn to apply those rules, long after we have forgotten all of the debate over whether the Harry Potter phenomena is a good thing or not, we will find that J.K.Rowling has done us all a valuable service simply by placing literature back into the centre of the playing field.

So, avoid long descriptions -- unless the description is of something so strange and wonderful that it becomes a part of the appeal, and does to the imagination what Spielburgian special effects do to the screen. What this calls for is imagination on the part of the author, innovation, and the daring to do what one hasn't seen done before. There will be criticism, to be sure, but anyone who advances beyond the traditional boundary lines of ordinariness can expect that. The next part, letting our light shine, we will look at how to know where the line is drawn between what would be God pleasing and what would not.

We badly need innovation. Peretti is also a good example of that. His including of angels and demons as characters in his narratives, was a bold step which also inspired me in my writing. He only targeted the Christian market, of course, but his fearless innovation is just the ingredient that could just as easily grab the secular world.

Also, avoid the copycat approach. We can learn a lot from people like Stephen Spielburg, J.K.Rowling, John Grisham, Stephen King, Tom Clancy and others, but we must be original. We learn, but we must innovate so that our ideas won't be immediately recognised as coming from another author or producer. A story about an orphan named Perry Hotter, who goes off to a school for young evangelists, would be a copy-cat approach. It might be read by some of the teens in your local youth group (provided their parents force them to) but it will never replace Harry Potter.

Does anyone still remember Jonathan Livingston Seagull? Soon after that made the best sellers list, along came a book by a Christian writer, called Benjamin Alexander Sheep (or something like that). It was cute, but it didn't get any of Jonathan's market share.

Another aspect of plot development we can learn is discovery. It could be deeper levels of reality, or something that makes everything else -- things that were taken for granted -- all suddenly come together. Mystery novels, of course, are built entirely around the discovery aspect, as the reader discovers at the end who the murderer really was. Other stories also make use of discovery, perhaps in a less profound way.

I remember the "discovery" experience I had when I finished The Hobbit, and started into The Fellowship of the Ring. At the end of The Hobbit, we rejoice as Bilbo Baggins arrives home with a new toy, a ring that not only helped him get around a dragon earlier on, but can now be used to avoid meeting unpleasant relatives. When Fellowship... opens, we realise that this very ring is the one ring of power that was once worn by the darkest of powerful forces who was thereby enabled to maintain a rule of tyranny over all of Middle Earth -- dark times they were, indeed. Now this very same dark force knows the ring still exists, and is even now, looking for it. Our gut reaction is, "Oh my God! And it's been sitting in the desk drawer all this time!"

The same discovery happens as we follow Harry Potter, an orphan boy sleeping in the closet under the stairs in his uncle's and aunt's home where he's a second class citizen. At the age of eleven he discovers for the first time who his parents really were, and he enters their world of witches and wizards, unknown territory to him, only to find that he is already famous. From an orphan boy with no future, he's suddenly in a different world where the opposite is true.

Or, what about Luke Skywalker, when he finds out he's the son of Darth Vador? (Or our discover that Darth Vador was once a cute little boy, and Yoda was once a boring committee member...!)

What discoveries from the life of faith can be drawn on to provide a story with mystique? What about sonship, or discovering of the true nature of God, or even what Paul calls the mystery hidden from before the beginning of the world? (Actually, Paul was quite innovative in using the concept of mystery that existed in his culture) Those are only ideas of course. No one's saying the discovery aspect even has to be something spiritual.

Where there are spiritual parallels, be original and innovative so they aren't too obvious. Again, times change. The character, Aslan may have been an ingenious parallel for C.S.Lewis to apply to Christ fifty years ago, but today's reading public may require something more subtle.

The rules of the game as far as action and plot go, are: 1. know what makes your audience tick; 2. use plenty of imagination, innovation and originality; and 3. keep the plot moving. Next, we look at...

...letting our lights shine -- There is much more we could have said about being relevant and using our imagination that I feel can be said better under the heading of letting our lights shine.

Once we are filled with the light of God, and our minds are renewed by what's really of God (and I'm purposely being ambiguous here as Christians from various backgrounds will have their own ideas on what that would entail), one of the results of that is the ability to distinguish what's really Biblical, what's truly required of us by God; and what has simply come along with our Christian experience as excess baggage. Or, to put it more simply: the difference between true Christianity and Christian culture.

The art of successfully writing faith inspired literature for secular audiences would consist of including what is essentially Christian, but leaving out the non-essential forms and traditions that the world has come to associate with Christianity. It's the art of evangelism without the subject knowing he or she is being evangelised. It's something like Jesus walking down the road to Emaeus with two of his old disciples, whose hearts burned within them, but not realising that the man walking with them was Jesus.

It's the presentation of the Person of Jesus, without spelling His name, J-E-S-U-S. Those trying to avoid alienating Jewish people call Him, Yeshua ha Moshiach. In the Islamic community, He's Isa, the Word of Allah. C.S.Lewish renamed Him Aslan, but the character of the real Jesus, by whatever name one names Him, is plainly recognisable.

In a book I'm working on now, a science fiction novel entitled The Zondon , Jesus appears as Wisdom, who speaks to the characters through a crystal, He's referred at one point to as the Word of Allah, He appears as the wandering Jew, He's even recognised for who he traditionally is, but he's never once referred to directly as "Jesus", or "Yeshua", or even "Isa". Even then, perhaps I'm more direct in my description than some readers may be comfortable with, but I catch them off guard by introducing Him first as the wandering Jew. Thus, He's no longer a handy symbol of a grand religious institution, but one who wields a two edged sword, of which the grand religious institution must also beware -- rather like Lewis' parallel of Christ, Aslan, who is a lion, but when asked whether he's a tame lion, the answer is "No". It's the portrayal of a God, who isn't the property of one institution or another.

The Zondon, like C.S.Lewis' Narnia series, is somewhat allegorical. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings isn't; meaning that there isn't a central character that represents Christ, nor a story that parallels the gospel. Nevertheless, Christlike attributes are reflected in a number of the characters. Themes that run throughout include that of the weak and simple confounding the strong, humble heroism, selfless courage, faithfulness, and love that overcomes lust. While the narrative doesn't present a gospel story, it instils values into the common psyche of society so that people will begin to recognise and desire true Christlike character when they see it -- even if they don't refer to it by the word "Christlike".

Quite a lot of this is subjective, of course, meaning that hard science and statistics will never give a conclusive answer, but it's worth asking nevertheless: Why is todays society, the Postmodern generation, suddenly asking all the right questions? Could it be that their thirst for reality and meaning was primed by people like Tolkien and other "closet Christian" authors?

Some might ask at this point, "Are you ashamed of the gospel of Christ? Then why not just say it as it is?"

This is all about "Saying it as it is", only without the usual terminology. The power of words is in their meaning, not in how you pronounce them, or what synonyms you choose.

And, no, I'm not ashamed of the gospel of Christ. I'm sometimes ashamed of the way Christian culture is foisted off instead of the pure gospel. I'm sometimes ashamed of the cultural insensitivity exhibited in some of the terminology that we use without considering how it's received by the listener. I'm ashamed by the fact that many who are truly hungry to know the person of Jesus are turned away by some of our mannerisms and some of the hobby horses we insist on riding.

Neither am I ashamed of the cross of Christ. Crucifixes, I am ashamed of -- especially the ones that were waved under the noses of Jews in an attempt to forcibly convert them to Christianity. Sometimes, I'd prefer to use a different word than "Cross of Christ", because in some minds, the meaning has been totally altered from what it originally meant. But the actual concept that the words stand for is a powerful force that needs to be put on public display, but in a way that will truly communicate to people of every cultural background.

Crucifixes, church bells, steeples, pulpits, alter calls, terminology, tradition, even soapboxes, megaphones and testimonies that make faith sound like a MLM scheme (not that all do): some of these have their place, but will only ever reach a small segment of society as a whole. But the gospel is meant to be communicated to every creature.

The whole point in breaking out and going for the bigger market share is to realise the potential of fiction in penetrating some of the cultural barriers that have held out against the traditional methods of evangelism. With fiction in the secular market, we can do everything short of leading them in a "sinner's prayer" (even that can be done at your own website, reachable through a link in your "about the author" blurb). We can pre-evangelise, we can introduce concepts that can later be used as a point of reference, we can introduce the person of Jesus, we can instil values that will hold once they are formally evangelised; with the right mixture of creativity and subtilty, anything is possible. It's called being wise as serpents but innocent as doves.

Really, the best medium of communication isn't books at all, nor audio visual, nor any other form of mass media; but rather, the personal life and character of an individual who has truly been transformed by the gospel, and who has learned to dispense with the forms and mannerisms that hinder good communication. Such a person may say nothing at all, but only stand ready to give his or her life for one other person, or for a group of people. If that opportunity never arises (has it ever arisen for most of us?), he or she is available to give one's friendship, one's time, one's resources, and even sacrifice one's reputation.

If such a person happens to be a gifted writer, then writing can become an extension of that person's influence. What the writer is, is what the writing will naturally communicate -- and that will go so much farther than what a writer tries to say he or she is.

This makes the matter of knowing where to draw lines so much easier. Your own heart will tell you when you're going too far in innovating. Just as the Law was given for those with a sin nature, so, stipulated rules of decency and guidelines of what constitutes good Christian writing acceptable by the conservative reading public, are for those who don't really know inside and need to be told what others expect.

To simply go where your heart draws you, may indeed draw the criticism of the Christian public, just as it did for Jesus. But, just maybe, you can reach a few of the people that weren't being reached otherwise.

On being controversial -- Not long ago, I realised that the Christian writer's market may be the most difficult for me to target, simply because most of my work, while directed towards Christians, is simply too -- what shall I say -- "free thinking" would be my choice of words; but "rebel", or "unorthodox", or even "heretical" might be the label some would put on it.

I don't think any of my work would be heretical. "Heretic", if you go by the Greek definition, is one who divides. One who uses any docterine, or argument, or personal appeal to draw off followers to oneself so as to cut off their fellowship from an existing group, or tries to alienate a subgroup from fellowship with the main group, would be classed as a heretic according to that definition. We could refine that definition somewhat by being specific as to how fundamental the issues are that cause the division, and exactly how far the one group or the other as wandered from basic Bible doctrine, if indeed they have.

Whichever way you look at it, I don't think anything I've written could be classed as heretical. Controversial, maybe.

The only thing wrong with being controversial is in the trying to be. If we simply follow our heart, provided our heart is pure, that is, we speak truth only because we love the truth, controversy will have no trouble finding us. There are two extremes to be avoided, or if you will, two ditches on either side of the road. On one side is avoiding controversy at all cost, which is the sin of the status quo; and on the other, purposly stirring up controversy, or the sin of presumption. On that side, are those who love controversy. They love truth, but only insofar as it's effective in stirring up controversy.

Only wisdom perceived with a clear mind can steer a straight course between the two ditches, and even then, sometimes appearing on the surface to actually succumb to one or the other extreme. Those already stuck in either ditch will always think of those not in the same ditch as them as being in the opposite ditch. That too will always be part of the controversy.

Sometimes wisdom dictates that the time has not yet come to speak out. To everything there is a season. Maybe the time hasn't come yet for you to become a widely read author. As of this writing, that time doesn't seem to have come for me either, although I believe it's the time to write.

My Church History professor once said, don't write a book until you're at least fourty. It's just too easy to write something you'll forever regret. I'm fourty-six now, so it's time for me to write now, isn't it!

When he said this, he was lecturing on the life of Oregin, the early church father. Oregin began writing while he was still young, and continued his writing career until he was quite old. Many things he wrote as a young man, he no doubt regretted much later. Many who take his works at face value fail to realise this (forinstance, his writings were used both in the arguments for and against the Arian heresy that came later).

So, wisdom may tell you, "No, you aren't stuck in the ditch. Your time just hasn't come yet." Maybe it's only time to keep quiet and listen. When I had been away from Northern Ireland for many years, I decided to go and join my father some months after my mother had passed away. Many of my father's friends are the type who tend to get extremely hot under the collar whenever the Protestant/Catholic issue comes up. My father had been away long enough to know how rediculous it all is, but his advice to me was, "Don't be quick to speak, just listen." It's wisdom, sometimes, just to listen quietly, not only so as to know what the issues are, but also how deeply they run.

Don't mistake the time to be quiet with being stuck in a ditch. Failure to realise this will only send you veering into the opposite ditch, so you end up among those who tear down, rather than a builder of the kingdom.

When you have remained quiet and keep your eyes, ears and your heart open, then the time will come, as it came for Jesus at the age of thirty, when wisdom tells you it's time to speak out, that justice cannot be served unless someone sticks his or her neck out.

Speaking out on an issue must come from pure motives. Over harshness can be the result when speaking out on an issue in which one still has unresolved conflict -- either that or over leniency, depending on ones makeup. Forinstance, one who finds oneself succumbing to sexual temptation, even if it's the temptation to look in the wrong direction at the wrong time, may tend to speak out with extream harshness against sexual promiscuity. In the same way, one who has been wounded by another's words may be too quick to use ones own words to wound others.

These would be examples of "trying to be" controversial, resulting from our blind spots. Blind spots can be quite a doozer. For instance, how can one really know one doesn't have pride? The only people who can spot pride in our lives and are willing to confront us with it are people whose authority we don't recognise, either because they're proud themselves, or else, in our pride, we can't stand their humility, or else because they're our own spouse! There's also the two ditches between obvious pride and false pride. Two more ditches constitute legalism and lawlessness. Just like we mentioned earlier, those in either ditch are not only authorities in spotting those in the opposite ditch, but they tend to include those who are, in fact, on the main road.

What's the answer? The answer is to look straight ahead to the end of the road, the end the light is shining from, and make straight for that, and not look at either ditch. Paying too much attention to either ditch will only send us into the opposite ditch. Learning by example is the best way to learn, especially when our example is the Master. Learning by negative example is among the worst ways. That only drives us to extremes.

When we look at the Master long enough, and I'm not saying I have, we can see all things in His light. We can recognise wisdom even when it comes from those in the ditches, but we also know to reject condemnation and fear.

Better still, people begin to see the Master in us -- and in our books and movies.

The most timely books that changed the way we all look at the world and at life, were writen by those who got their bearings from Him, and thus weren't afraid of a little controversy.

The changing times -- Earlier on, I referred to Charles Dickens as a Christian author. If there is doubt on that point, (apart from looking at the websites listed in the side bar) consider English society of his day. If you don't have an accurate knowledge of that period of history, then picture English society as described in Oliver Twist, and David Copperfield. Who, but someone with both the mind and the boldness of Christ would so aptly point out the injustice of society in regards to the poor and especially towards children, and the hypocrisy of the religious charitable institutions in the way they went about dealing with the inequities? One can picture Jesus prophesying against the hypocrisy of it all just as He did in Jerusalem. Who, but someone who knew the heart of Christ could illustrate so skilfully through the narrative of Great Expectations the value of relationships and acts of love and compassion over and against the ultimate emptiness of seeking a high position in society?

As a social commentator Dickens was quite radical for his day. Oliver Twist was almost like propaganda literature. In fact, the characterisation of the boy, Oliver, seems a bit stretched as we read it today. We could easily think, how can a young boy from an orphanage where he was shown no love at all, go through so much intense pressure to participate in crime, and yet end up so pure and innocent? As the preface to one edition I read points out, Dickens' probable response would have been, "My point exactly! How do we expect anyone to go through our so-called charity programs, with the attitudes we go about managing them, and turn out to be anything but a criminal?" (I'm plagiarising! I just don't remember where I read that. If anyone recognises the comment, please email me ASAP with the source.)

Today, we've learned the lessons of Oliver Twist, so what was written as a message then, only comes across today as overly contrived characterisation. When I saw the BBC film, Oliver Twist, I didn't feel it was such a great loss that they had modified the character of the boy, Oliver, just slightly. Today, we need a more realistic story. In Dicken's day, they needed to get the point.

The social issues then are not the social issues we have today, largely due to countless other social activists, abolitionists, reformers, revivalists, not to mention authors like Dickens who simply let their light shine, and let it shine in the right place -- for the whole world to see, not just the Christian getto. When the radicalism of the believing community began to wane, the torch was taken up by socialists and the proponants of liberation theology.

Nevertheless, we do have social issues today that desperately need addressing. We need believing authors with the boldness of Charles Dickens to address our deficiencies today. Dicken's can't do that, because he lived then.

Likewise, John Bunyan's work made good reading for the general public of his day. Anything that contained adventure and imagination, as Pilgrim's Progress did, was grabbed up and read, and the fact that the book has obvious Christian overtones made no difference, because society thought of itself as Christian. However, Bunyan was a bit too radical for the Christian right of his day, so he had to do a lot of his writing from prison.

Neither Dicken's works, nor Bunyan's has the radical impact on today's society as it did in their own own time, but for almost opposite reasons. The same society that has inherited so much from people like Dickens, the abolitionists and child labour activists, today no longer considers itself Christian; and so would neither accept something so obviously Christian as Pilgrim's Progress, nor be radically moved by Oliver Twist. I also mentioned earlier that C.S.Lewis' portrayal of Aslan as a Christ figure may not go over as well today as it did fifty years ago, because society has been through almost as much change between Lewis' time and now, as between Bunyan's time and Lewis'. Tokien's work still has vitality though, but as a motion picture. The book is now back on the best-seller's list due to the release of the the first instalment of his trilogy for the screen. I'm sure there are lessons to be learned from that as well.

The message is obvious. We need -- we desperately need -- people who are full of their experience with God, who aren't afraid of displeasing the Christian status quo, who know what today's reader wants in a book (if today's reader doesn't know it yet, all the better -- that's called "cutting edge innovation"), and know how to write it.

The door is open -- go for it!

Wednesday, February 27, 2002

If It Were'nt for God, I'd be an Atheist

Christmas has come and gone. We had a good time, we put up a tree, bought presents, made sure we got cards to the right people, had friends over and had a time of it.
What was it all for?
Celebration of Christ's birth.
And why do we celebrate Christ's birth on December 25th every year?
Did Jesus ask us to?
That's one of the questions I stick in the same catagory as, why such a big hoopla on January 1st 2000? What's so significant about the anniversary of Jesus turning 3 years old (as the true historical date of His birth is around 4 BC)? And if it was important that we celebrate His birthday, why were we never given an exact date -- other than somebody's arbitrarily picking the date of Winter Solstice (a Roman pagan holiday) for the occasion, and then miss-guessing the year...?
Many believers in Messiah don't celebrate Christmas, and they give excellent reasons for their stand. A couple of them are linked to this web site.
So why, you ask, did we celebrate Christmas?
In my case, as I'm surrounded on every side by wonderful believers in Messiah of the more traditional sort, and as I haven't received a direct personal word from the Lord regarding Christmas, I think that the waves that would result from my refusal to celebrate would be more destructive than creative. Romans 14:5ff is applicable here.
So, we celebrated Christmas simply because everyone else was celebrating, and we didn't want to miss the fun.
Apart from that, it's hard for me to take Christmas very seriously, especially when we're not commanded in the Bible to celebrate it, nor even given enough information on how and when to celebrate it.
Especially when there are a number of feasts that are described in the Bible in great detail with instructions about how and when to celebrate them, that we totally ignore.
Why do we pay so much attention to so-called Christian holidays that the Bible doesn't even mention, and so little attention to the Jewish feasts that are mentioned?
Are we afraid of being 'under the law'?
Then why are we virtually under the law regarding Christmas, Easter and other holidays?
The answer to that is, because of a religious system which, it seems, could go on propagating itself whether God existed or not.
Whether God shows any signs of life or not, hymns are sung and sermons are preached every Sunday, Christmas happens at the end of the year, people get upset when you spell it 'Xmas' because you're 'taking Christ out of Christmas', and the coloured eggs and Easter bonnets come out around April or so.
More Christians are sure of the necessity of celebrating Easter, than are absolutely sure that Jesus did, in fact, die on the cross around 2000 years ago, and rise again three days later.
Is God pleased with a system that can go on without any action on His own part, run by people who aren't 100% sure of the resurrection, and even less sure of the Sinai experience?
Personally, I believe He's more pleased with a self proclaimed Atheist. That's what I understand from Revelation 3:15 anyway. If you can't be hot, it's better to be cold.
Why celebrate the resurrection if one doesn't believe in it? If anything is essential to the Christian message, it's the resurrection of Jesus.
I've told my friends, if you want to stop me being a Christian, all you have to do is prove conclusively that 2000 years ago, Jesus didn't actually and physically die, and then rise again from the dead three days later. In order for us to gain power over sin through the born again experience and be thus enabled to live the Christian life, it was necessary for the death and resurrection to actually happen physically to Messiah. An inspiring story of human goodness triumphing over evil just won't do.
Some of my friends have talked about discoveries that are supposedly suppressed by the Catholic church, such as the actual nature of 'the Holy Grail', or something about a grave somewhere in France closely guarded by the Knights Templar, containing the body of Jesus who actually grew to an old age, or something like that.
My answer is, why suppress it?
If there is proof to the effect that Jesus didn't actually die and rise again from the dead, I want to be the first to know. I could then stop wasting my time with this 'Christianity' thing.
If Jesus is still a corps, then so is all this stuff about 'church' and Christian religion. Moreover, it stinks to high heaven - literally. Religion without a living Lord being the central driving force is a stench in God's nostrils. The only thing that should keep the honest conscientious person around the church scene is the presence of Jesus.
So what would I do if they disproved the resurrection?
Probably convert to Judaism and study to become a rabbi. At least they have a living God. I'd probably go Lubbavitch Chavad. They seem to have the most personal experience of any non-Messianic Jewish group I know of (also linked on this site).
...Unless someone also proved that God didn't actually give the Torah to Moses at Mt. Sinai 1500 years before that -- another vitally important event.
The reason why the death and resurrection of Jesus fits into the scheme of things, is the Exodus and the Sinai experience. That (and perhaps you could add, the call of Abraham) is what set the foundation for the other to happen. The two are what I would call the most important events in history.
What I find remarkable is how both events are recorded.
Even if Moses didn't write the whole Torah, as some claim, someone had the audacity to say, 'All of our forefathers witnessed the Exodus, and heard God's voice thunder from Mt. Sinai, and saw His glory in a cloud over the congregation' (I heard this reasoning from an Orthodox rabbi, by the way).
Why did that take such audacity?
Because anyone who heard or read such a statement could simply go to any corner of Palestine, and asked any elderly gentleman of the Hebrew race, 'Did this really happen to your forefathers?' The answers one would get from the various tribes and villages of Israel would say whether there was substance to what was said or if it was simply a made up story.
If it didn't really happen, it would certainly conflict with their oral tradition.
To try to fabricate a story like the Exodus would be like telling all non-native Americans that their forefathers really arrived in North America on alien spacecraft. Even without school textbooks, most families know how their grandparents or their great grandparents arrived in North America. Some date it all the way back to the Mayflower. Some to the slave ships. Most of them also know which country they originated from, so how could anyone put a story over like that and have it uniformly believed throughout the whole nation?
Apparently someone managed to pull it off in ancient Israel -- either that or God really did appear to them in Sinai.
Regarding the resurrection of Jesus, Paul had the same audacity. He stated in I Corinthians 15 that Jesus, after his resurrection, was seen by 300 people, most of them still alive. All the reader had to do was go and find several of them and ask. Some of the Corinthians, whom he was addressing were beginning to doubt the resurrection, and where there's doubt, someone's bound to check out the source.
So, Paul either knew something, or he was stupid.
So, back to the issue of Christmas, and the other so-called Christian holidays. At least, the Jewish holidays, largely ignored by the Christian community, celebrate the vital role of the Exodus and the Sinai experience, and the actual presence of God in the midst of the congregation of Israel.
What about Easter?
I think we were originally meant to be celebrating Passover, which is the Jewish feast during which Jesus was crucified and resurrected (actually He was resurrected on the feast of First Fruits, a few days after the Passover meal).
But isn't Easter the Christian version of Passover?
No. One of the popes decided that he didn't like the idea of Christians following the Jewish lunar calendar (it was too 'Jewish') and replaced it with that of an nearby date on the solar calendar of what used to be a Roman pagan holiday of - you guessed it - 'Easter'. The thing is, we Christians hated the Jews so much that we'd rather be pagan than Jewish, so that's why we, today, don't celebrate the Lord's resurrection on Passover, but on a pagan holiday, complete with rabbit eggs.
Maybe that's why we ended up with such an empty religion...?