Saturday, January 12, 2013

A Writer's Confession

Here’s the deal: I love to write about God, Christian faith, theology, ministry. I love exploring ideas that have caused people like me to question and wrestle and struggle with God. I hope that my own reflections and investigations will help others along the journey of faith in Jesus.

But I also like to write scary, thrillerish, fictional stuff. I write about ghosts and vampires and zombies, and I do that for two reasons:

Reason One: Supernatural monsters offer a great context for exploring theological themes related to good and evil, heaven and hell, life and death (for example, one of my novels is actually asking about the nature of evil and hell; its sequel deals with human trafficking). The monsters always symbolize something and the characters in the story are given the space to navigate the drama while engaging with deeper issues.

Reason Two: I just like scary stuff. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve loved spooky stories and, especially, scary movies. There was an L.A. based series in the 1950s and 60s called “The Million Dollar Movie.” It would run for a week at 7:00 in the evening, showing the same movie each night, Monday through Friday. When our TV guide would arrive, I’d scour it to see what was playing. When I spotted Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolfman, or Invaders from Mars (I didn’t care that the Martians all had zippers down their backs), I’d plan to watch every single night until my eyeballs exploded.

But if you write about monsters (and even the human, serial-killer type monsters), then you have to write some gory stuff or people won’t stay in the story. Let’s face it: Vampires bite necks and drink blood, and then get impaled through the heart with a wooden stake. Werewolves stalk people, tear them apart, and then get killed by a silver bullet before they have time to turn back into an accountant or a hedge fund manager. You get the idea.

I recently read a couple of fresh chapters from one of my novels-in-process to two women I know, each at a separate reading. When I was finished, each gave me the same startled look that suggested they were thinking, in the imaginary bubbles over their heads, “What in the world is wrong with you?” It’s probably a legitimate question, which I hope will go unanswered.

There is an important precedent for this kind of thing, however. Here are some hideous, gory examples:

A woman gives shelter to a high-profile refugee, and then pounds a tent stake through his head and into the ground while he sleeps.

A woman is gang-raped, and then her body is dismembered and the butchered pieces sent around to leaders in the community.

A national leader’s duplicity is revealed, and he is impaled alive on a tall, wooden beam and left to die a slow, painful death while the people of the community watch.

These rather graphic, bloody examples, are found in the Bible (in order: Jael and Sisera, Judges chapter 4; the Levite’s Concubine, Judges chapter 19; the execution of Haman, Esther chapter 7).

I fear that Christian fiction can be overly sanitized because publishers worry that graphic scenes or language will cause Christian consumers to close their pocketbooks. Maybe Christian novelists even fear that they are crossing a moral line by engaging in such writing. One thing is for sure: Religious editors for centuries have certainly overlooked the graphic nature of the Bible. And yet I hear it’s a pretty big seller.

This is not an argument for gratuitous violence and rough language. But if we who love stories don’t allow the characters to act true to their character—even if that character is dark and dangerous—then we’re not telling our stories well.

Having said all that, the second book in my vampire trilogy—A Body Given—is now in publication (Kindle and Nook to follow soon). If you like that sort of thing, see for yourself if the creep factor serves the story well. It’s too late for me to change it anyway.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

What Happens in Vegas . . .

A couple of years ago my wife and I decided to take a wedding anniversary trip to a place we had never been: Las Vegas. I have lived in southern California my entire life and, except to pass through once on my way to somewhere else, I had never been to Las Vegas. The town simply does not connect for me. I have no interest in gambling and the never-ending nightlife offers no appeal, since I find the night a very convenient time for sleeping.

We chose to drive there, however, in order to see the Cirque du Soleil show, Beatles Love.

We are both fans of the Beatles and have been since their arrival in the US in 1964. I was just entering the netherworld of male puberty when I was imprinted with this music and it has been echoing in my brain ever since. I think that if someone were to do study about the kind of music you listen to when puberty hits they would find that the music forms your appreciation for a certain type of music for the rest of your life. That’s my theory.

We arrived at the hotel in the afternoon and decided to walk around the Strip for awhile. It was December and the Nevada desert was sparkly and chilled. I marveled at the garish architecture and tried to steer clear of the street hawkers attempting to hand us invitations to strip clubs. Then we had a very nice dinner and entered the theater, where we ran into one of my students and his wife (reminding me that God's watchful eye is even in Vegas, and nothing will just stay in Vegas).

The show was delightful and clearly worth our time and money. We then stood outside with all the other tourists and watched the fake volcano spew water all over the place, forcing us all to clap our hands as if we’d never seen such a thing.

The next morning we had breakfast and then walked through the casino part of the hotel as we prepared to head for home. As we walked the curving, carpeted pathway that drew us through the aisles of slot machines, I heard music playing over the hotel speakers. Holiday music had been playing at the hotel constantly since our arrival. It was the culturally-correct stuff that you often hear, fun but having little to do with Christmas. My eyes were taking in the images of early morning gamblers staring at the lights and flashes of the machines, some with drinks from the bar at their elbows, when I stopped in my tracks. The music was different now and the difference hit me like rock. Rather than hearing Mel Torme or Bing Crosby, I heard a choir, and these were the words I could make out:

He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glory of his righteousness
And wonders of his love

It was Joy to the World, but with a boldness that I had never heard before. It was a proclamation of the kingdom of God, not coming from a small band of the faithful out in the street, but right in the middle of a casino. The good news that God is king resonated through the building, and I may have been the only one to hear it.

I looked again at the floor of the casino. There it was: The place of empty promises and broken dreams. And into the midst of that false reality came the proclamation of the only thing that is real—the kingdom of God.

How amazing that the good news that Jesus proclaimed and lived out would come to us as invitation to his table. How amazing that, just for a few moments, voices would call out to the bleary-eyed Las Vegas gamblers that a new reality was theirs for the receiving. I wondered: Who were the people in the casino who were being called through this song? Surely there were just everyday people off on an excursion, but there might also be a pickpocket or two and maybe some prostitutes. There might be people who had lost it all and were dumping their last dollars into the machines that they prayed would change their lives. The music went out to them all.

While I couldn’t hear it, there is a verse that precedes this one:

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found . . .

Sins—the many ways that we humans forget about God—and sorrows—the consequence of believing that God has forgotten us—are, we hear, no longer allowed to grow. Jesus has come to bring blessing to the world and the song was sung that December morning in a Vegas hotel casino. I wonder if someone else took notice. I wonder if someone got up from a slot machine, looked around, and headed outside to find the wonders of God’s love. I don’t know.

But I know that I heard it. And I believed it.

(From my book, Shadow Meal: Reflections on Eucharist)