Saturday, August 10, 2013

On Faith and Horror

People sometimes ask how a religious guy like me can be interested in writing horror stories (“He seemed so nice and normal, although he kept to himself. We never imagined that he . . .”). So I share my “Author’s Note” that I wrote a year ago for my novel A Body Given (part 2 in a three-part series):

While I’ve been a fan of vampire stories since I was a kid, I didn’t start writing about the undead until my grandchildren attempted to convince me that these soulless monsters were just a race of unfortunate and misunderstood beings. Seeking to correct their misperceptions, I set out to write a short story that became my novel This Side of Death, which continues to remain largely undiscovered and, at least by my grandchildren’s reckoning, largely underappreciated.

Nevertheless, the story still wants to tell itself, as these things often do. I’ve discovered along the way that a vampire story is a great vehicle for exploring the depths of evil that plague the human race. My vampires try to be true to the traditional legends, so they are unkind and unmerciful along with being undead. They also expose the darkness that often lies dormant (and too often not dormant) in the hearts of living, breathing, human beings.

The vampire genre also allows for explorations of faith. Since the legends themselves are a reversal of the Christian Eucharist (the blood of the many for the one versus the blood of the One for the many), there are numerous parallels and metaphors that allow a writer to move between the horrors of death and the mysteries of faith.

There is a third book in the making that will probably end this series of vampiric journeys. It too wrestles with horror and faith, moving the story to a new location through the lives of both new and familiar characters.

Stories never emerge in a vacuum, but are an accumulation of experiences, imaginings, influences, and relationships. I am indebted to writers whose wonderfully chilling books have offered me inspiration and pleasure, especially Bram Stoker, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Anne Rice, and Elizabeth Kostova. Their stories continue to creep at the margins of my imagination.

I am also indebted to those who have been my helpers along the way, those whose input and correction kept me from going too far off the rails in my storytelling. I am grateful for the excellent editing job done by the skilled hands and eyes of my daughter, Laurelin Varieur, who is not shy about correcting my errors but also seems to know how my mind works. I was given hope that my story might hook readers when an early manuscript was read by my friend Lydia Van Hoff, who likes a creepy story as much as I do, and may have actually met a vampire or two in Northern Ireland. And I was expertly guided through the description of the effects of type-1 diabetes by my fine grandson Jacob Karnofel, who made sure I got all the highs and lows right and, like his siblings and cousins, did not hesitate to set his grandfather straight.

And I am thankful that you are about to read this book. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Conservative, Progressive, and Automobiles

There’s an interesting piece today in the Washington Post about the challenges facing the possible emergence of a progressive religious movement. Once again, this causes me to think about what we (and, by we, I’m speaking mostly to those who follow Jesus) mean when we use the categorical terms conservative and progressive.

As I’ve written before, I would like for us to challenge our own categories by asking questions like: What are the things that we desire to conserve? Do those things have lasting value? What are we trying to conserve that is merely culture-bound? And how is it that we see ourselves progressing? What are we progressing from, and what direction are we progressing? By what motivation, energy, and power do we progress? Is our progress energized by the Spirit of God, or by the power of cultural voices?

When I wrestle with these questions, I wonder if we can’t be both of those things at the same time, given some legitimate answers to those questions. If we act conservatively with the assumption that everything we cherish has ultimate value, then we risk an arrogance that can blind us to what God is doing in the world (biblical example: The Holy Spirit falls on Peter’s gentile friends [Acts 10-11], and the conservative value of Jewish exclusiveness is rattled, and a progression revealed by God emerges). If we act progressively with the movement of culture, we risk losing our basis for theological and biblical reflection and end up getting swept up by every societal shift that claims to be progressive.

If conservatism is characterized by safety, and if progressivism is characterized by new risks, then the only things I can think of that adequately hold both in tension are new cars.

Think about it: The safety features in cars today are a quantum leap from what existed 40 years ago. Airbags, seat belts, braking systems, and overall construction all help to create cocoons of safety for human beings. At the same time, theses cars have the capacity for face-distorting speed, with a mechanical responsiveness that would dazzle the minds of stunt drivers of past generations. A new car has the capacity to create joy in the hearts of both conservatives and progressives. They might even take a ride together.

On top of that, these cars are expensive. Conservative or progressive, both will dive deeply into our capitalist economic system in order to purchase new automobiles. That’s just how it is. Banks who offer car loans could care less about our politics.

I would love to see us all quit screaming at one another, caricaturing one another (and then skewering the caricature), and condemning one another. Now might be a good time to start listening, talking and reflecting. We have to question the things we think need to be conserved. We have a long Christian tradition of conserving the wrong things and ignoring the right things. We also have to question our progressive leanings. If culture is our only criteria for interpreting Scripture, theology, and ethics, then any cultural shift will do.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Singularity of Voices

And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away. (Ezra 3:11b-13)


People groups often adapt to change in fits and starts. Some people like fresh inventions and innovations; other people find the new expressions difficult or substandard, and long for things as they used to be.

The people of Israel had been in exile, and had recently been released to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the city under the watchful of King Cyrus of Persia. The city walls were repaired, taunting enemies were chased off, and—with great anticipation and fanfare—the foundation of the new Temple was laid.

The former Temple—a glorious structure built by King Solomon—had long been destroyed. The new Temple would bring joy to the people as a worshipping community, but it would be a different structure than the one that preceded it.

So there was both rejoicing and weeping when the foundation was completed. Perhaps the older folks wept, not only because the Temple was returning to Jerusalem, but also because it would be different from the one they remembered from their youth. For the younger people, who had no memory of the former Temple, it was a new and exciting project, one that would finally ground their identity in their homeland.

We’re told that all the voices—the weeping, the laughing, the mourning, the rejoicing—all came together as one voice.

We who follow Jesus do so in a culture that is characterized by rapid, discontinuous change. It’s not just that the world around us changes—technology, international relations, social and legal boundaries—but also that the life of the church keeps changing. New expressions of worship and mission emerge, sometimes on their own, and other times in the midst of congregations that have been immersed in many years of tradition. People often rejoice when these changes come. Others, however, weep.

The older I get, the more I appreciate this tension. It’s difficult to distinguish between traditions that have deep and lasting value and those that are just temporary cultural preferences. It’s both exciting and frightening to pursue innovations in worship and communal life. It’s too bad, however, when the response of the church is to divide and separate, draw lines in the sand and create boundaries that alienate.

It is a joy, however, when all come together and search for the fingerprints of God in what seems to be emerging in our midst—not new expressions for the sake of newness, but fresh engagements with the Spirit of God that capture new images and songs, revitalizing ancient traditions and creating new ones. And within all the tension that comes with new things, the voices that cry out do so as one voice, a voice that rejoices before God.

Right now I’m hearing the prayer of Jesus—a prayer that anticipates even us—that might help us think about this:

“I ask not only on behalf of these [disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23)

May it be so, Lord.