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Cosplay 101 For The Confused Christian


Friday
Sep 1, 2017

About a decade ago, my then-pastor included cosplay photos of my cosplay group in the church bulletin, just because he thought it was unusual and would be fun.

He didn’t know it, but that decision made for years of easier connection with friends leery of organized religion.

They told me, “You go to church? Don’t they, you know, get all weird about you going to cons and stuff?”

“Actually, they put our cosplay photos in the bulletin,” I said.

“Really?”

This was so unexpected that it broke preconceptions and barriers.

The photo which was selected for a calendar and brought criticism in my small group.

About the same time, however, I arrived at small group one night to hear the co-leader publicly sharing her disgust at the “lesbian incest” photos she’d seen online of my sister and me, cosplaying a straight and unrelated couple. This disparagement didn’t build many relationships within the church or without.

From outside the hobby, cosplay can look confusing or even a little scary in its unfamiliarity, but it doesn’t have to be either. Here’s a quick overview of the community and a guide to key terms.

Cosplay means dressing up as particular characters (or occasionally concepts or inanimate objects!) from a particular media source.

The word is a portmanteau of “costume playacting.” And while the act is often touted as a modern fandom thing, it actually goes back at least to the 1930s in its recognizable modern form.

It’s no different than what a previous generation did when they donned coonskin caps because Daniel Boone was big on television. Fans have always wanted to take on the look of their favorite characters! Cosplay often involves being in character to a greater or lesser degree. While most cosplay purely for fun, there are competitions for craftsmanship and performance, ranging from local to international.

Crossplay means portraying a character of the opposite sex.

When I as a woman play Edward Elric or Emperor Ryuuki, for example, I am crossplaying. When a male friend plays Daphne from Scooby Doo, he is crossplaying. The character’s sex is not the cosplayer’s sex.

Our “Amok Time” group, from Star Trek.

There are many reasons a cosplayer might crossplay:

  • A group needs characters which don’t match the group’s makeup. A few weeks ago, for example, friends and I played the Vulcans from the iconic Star Trek episode “Amok Time,” even though there was only one male cosplayer in our group. Most of us females crossplayed to fill out the roles.
  • A cosplayer wants to play to their own physical or mental attributes. I once judged a real-life male and female couple playing an onscreen male and female couple—but he was playing the female and she was playing the male, because they were each better suited for those roles. They earned a prize for their excellent craftsmanship and portrayals.
  • Frankly, women often crossplay because there are more worthwhile male characters than female. The trope of the five-man band can keep female characters to a minimum, and there are a lot of bland women and “sexy lamps” in media. I often play male characters simply because they’re the interesting ones.

My sister Alena, playing Nathan Drake from Uncharted.

While many people are tempted to view male-to-female cosplay as a joke, that’s not fair (and it says a great deal about one’s gender views). I’ve seen a lot of very talented male cosplayers make beautiful costumes and do a fantastic job playing female characters. Mocking or denigrating them, or assuming their purpose could only be comic, is just as boorish as laughing at a male author who writes a female protagonist.

Crossplay can be done very skillfully. My sister and I have both been asked to dance by women while playing men, and my friend Christopher has more than once been mistaken for a woman until he speaks—and we all laugh together and they complement our efforts. It means we’ve done our work well!

Gender-bending is when the character changes sex—but not the cosplayer.

An example might be a woman playing the Tenth Doctor as a woman, wearing a pin-striped skirt and jacket and heels. I saw a WonderMan at an event last month, wearing adapted armor. The character and costume have been gender-swapped, but the cosplayer and gender-bent character have the same sex. This may be done when a cosplayer doesn’t feel confident in his or her crossplay abilities or just when he or she wants to reimagine a character with a different take.

Observers sometimes make a serious mistake by assuming crossplay and gender-bending are declarations of sexual preference or practice.

I play more male characters than female, and I’m a straight woman who’s been married nearly 20 years. Gay and straight cosplayers cosplay, crossplay, and gender-bend in equal ratio. The couple jointly crossplaying a couple was not practicing some sort of fetish. Making an assumption about someone’s sexual practices at home based on a costume is just as uncouth as at any other time, and commenting on it is just as unwelcome and creepy at a cosplay event as it would be on a sidewalk or at church.

While cosplay generally incorporates a variety of construction skills, from sewing to armor-making to casting to wig-making, it doesn’t have to be that complicated.

Closet cosplay is the art of taking the clothes you already own and incorporating them into a costume.

This is a concept already familiar to Sunday School parents, wrapping their children in bathrobes and towels for the annual Christmas pageant. But it’s also useful for the novice cosplayer without many sewing or construction skills. It’s best for characters whose looks are based on modern street clothes; a solid-colored shirt with suspenders, a Hawaiian shirt, and a silky dress can quickly become Malcolm Reynolds, Wash, and Inara from Firefly. It’s somewhat less feasible for, say, a Gundam or a kaiju from Pacific Rim.

Now that we have some basic terminology, we can talk about common misapprehensions and myths. Tune in again next week for Cosplay 101 for the Critical Christian, where we’ll learn what all this really says about the people who engage in this colorful hobby, and what to watch for.

But You Just Can’t Dress Like Jesus After Labor Day


Thursday
Aug 31, 2017

No, I can’t join the New Sexual Moral Majority. But sometimes I wish I could.

They seem so excited, truly thrilled, about their beliefs. Indeed it would be exciting to find that all along —plot twist—Jesus actually did approve some things we thought He viewed as self-destruction. Even better, we could discover this truth at the exact moment when the Church needs to regain respect, and possibly majority influence, among our neighbors. We could better help a hurting, impoverished world, and we could introduce them to Jesus.1

This idea would also give Christian-made speculative novels a huge boost. At last month’s Realm Makers conference, a panel of agents and publishers were asked about publishing trends. Agent Steve Laube answered first: the big trend is LGBT stories, all the way.

But alas, many (not all) New Sexual Moral Majority advocates say things like, “Come on, it’s 2017. You just can’t belief those particular things now that it’s 2017. It simply isn’t done.”

And all I hear is a silly, strange “argument” based in the language of mere fashion: “Come on, it’s Labor Day. Nobody wears white after Labor Day. You’re just not supposed to do it. And also it’s 2017 and everyone knows you just can’t dress like Jesus after [name of year].”

This sort of critique represents the absolute worst of popular culture.

About this worst element, all the fundies, the separatists, and the grumpy legalistic Christians who never bought a TV are absolutely right. Popular culture is infected with trends: ideas/memes/beliefs that opinion-makers declare are “in,” that is holy and righteous, simply by virtue of their existing and seeming to catch on with a lot of people.

If you catch the trend, you’re In. You’re cool. People will listen to you and you can become an influencer yourself. If you’re a Christian, maybe people will stop calling you a racist and will actually listen when you speak about an eternal Savior who loves people.

But if you don’t catch the trend, you’re Out. People will not listen to you. They will likely call you a racist, or associate you with other sins you may or may not actually be guilty of doing.

This isn’t to say that anyone who adopts a particular fashion is doing it just to be cool. That would be slanderous to say (as some have said against Christians who believe that we can better engage with people for Jesus’s sake by engaging the stories and culture they enjoy). No, that’s not always our prime motive. Sometimes we just happen to follow a trend, to like the culture’s “color,” at the exact moment it’s trendy. That doesn’t mean you’re sinning.2

Rather, I’m speaking against the notion of following trends just because they’re trendy.

I do believe such trend-chasing is sinful. It’s opposed to the teaching of Jesus, who would often emphasize his people’s need to oppose other moral value systems. The Pharisees wanted to condemn Him for teaching against their legalism. And even His disciples wanted to use Jesus’s influence for their own short-term “free us from the Romans” political ends.

However, Jesus has His own mission: to preach that “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel,”3 and to die and resurrect to show He must carry out justice yet also mercy and love.4

This was His agenda, utterly fashion-free. He kept above such trendy notions swirling about Him, and expressing mild exasperation when His disciples continually missed His points.

Even if He were only a human, Jesus demonstrates such glory, devotion, and earnestness for His actual cause, that He naturally makes vapid fashions and catchy trends look absurd. However, He is not just a Man, but God Himself. From the supposed backward archives of the past comes His thunderous yet merciful plea: “Repent of your sin. Believe in me. Join my kingdom. Become like Myself. Dress like Me.”

And in response, too many plaintive voices in our culture sputter, like flustered Pharisees, “But you just can’t dress like Jesus after Labor Day. It simply isn’t done. Because it’s 2017! Now that it’s 2017, everyone dresses in these New Sexual Moral Majority garments.”

I’m sorry, I’ll need a better reason than that.

Yes, I know our friends among this religion offer better reasons. And as I mentioned earlier, some of them claim their beliefs are actually the real, lost fashion of Jesus, unearthed from secret treasure trunks in Christianity’s attic. I don’t buy this either. It has the unmistakable feel of someone trying to resurrect old cultural trends—and yet not nearly old enough.

Naturally, the Christian fantasy fan’s hero, C.S. Lewis, remarked upon this very problem:

The use of Fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under.

… But the greatest triumph of all is to elevate his horror of the Same Old Thing into a philosophy so that nonsense in the intellect may reinforce corruption in the will.

… The Enemy [God] loves platitudes. Of a proposed course of action He wants men, so far as I can see, to ask very simple questions; is it righteous? is it prudent? is it possible? Now if we can keep men asking ‘Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is this the way that History is going?’ they will neglect the relevant questions. And the questions they do ask are, of course, unanswerable; for they do not know the future, and what the future will be depends very largely on just those choices which they now invoke the future to help them to make. As a result, while their minds are buzzing in this vacuum, we have the better chance to slip in and bend them to the action we have decided on. And great work has already been done.5

Even as we engage popular culture, often more than our forebears, we must stop being foolish and naïvely sheltered about such vapid trends and superficiality of popular culture.

Lines that sound like “But it’s 2017”, “Your belief is so last year,” or “This is The Future and history will belong to these people” betray an appeal to trendiness-for-only-trend’s-sake. Christians should ignore and reject such thinking, just as we ignore and reject the myths or even hate some Christians have shown to other people. Don’t follow trends. Follow Jesus.

  1. Unfortunately, some of these hopes—that Christians could make a difference in the world if only we changed or quieted our beliefs about marriage and sex—are frankly naïve. They show that Christians aren’t quite past our well-intended but shallow beliefs in “seeker-friendly” evangelism. Deep down, we believe that people already assume basic Christian belief, and only reject Jesus because they aren’t fully educated or have met bad Christians. This is true for some people, but not all. If we pretend everyone is like this, or that most people would adore Christians if we only follow Jesus 100 percent—is total escapism.
  2. For Christian fantasy fans, rejoice. We’re not automatically guilty of something—at least, no more than usual! After all, fantasy is no mere trend, and you likely love fantasy for many reasons other than just “all the cool people like fantasy these days.” As Christian geeks have pointed out, they got into these stories before they were cool. They were used to acting outside the majority culture, and in so doing, reflected the “weirdness” of Christianity.
  3. Mark 1:15.
  4. Romans 3:21-31.
  5. C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters.

Promises, Promises


Wednesday
Aug 30, 2017

Let’s talk about promises. To narrow the field, let’s talk about the promises the producers of culture make to us regarding their shows and movies and books.

Now, I don’t mean advertising slogans (BEST OF THE YEAR), which are not promises so much as exercises in hope and hype. I mean the implicit promises of genre, or brand, or whatever label under which a work takes up residence. These promises are made (of course!) in the interest of profit; if they get us to believe, they get us to buy. But once we believe and buy, they end up bound to their brands. The power of brand is a conservative force and resists change – including from readers and writers wanting something new in Christian publishing. (Incidentally, that is a preview. We will end at Christian publishing, but we’re taking the long way around, like they did before the Federal Highway-Aid Act.)

A brand is identity in shorthand and infinitely useful in this capitalistic world of choices. When you are so unfortunate as to be driving cross-country, do you stop to eat at small, unknown restaurants in small, unknown towns, thus exploring the rich variety of our great country and supporting hard-working small-business owners?

Of course not. You might get disappointed. You might get lost. You might get salmonella. What you do is, you watch the FOOD signs and get off the interstate when you see the logo of a chain restaurant that strikes you as good or, at any rate, acceptable. I’ve seen critical social commentary of this, but it’s only good sense. The selection off the highway sign of corporate logos is a selection based on knowledge, and if you’re not thrilled about getting a mediocre hamburger from McDonald’s, you won’t really be disappointed, either. Because you knew what to expect.

To teach people what to expect is the triumph of brand, and quite profitable when the expectations are good. What follows such triumph is an effort to preserve the brand and fulfill expectations. Disney, for example, has released most of its PG-13 fare and all of its R-rated fare under its Touchstone label. The more auspicious Disney label is reserved for gentler, kinder movies, movies fit for children. This is not a moral decision or an expression of values. Disney knows that its brand is a promise of movies that, while rarely without a dose of pathos, will never be too edgy or dark. Violate that too often or too egregiously, and see how many parents will be buying theater tickets on no other grounds than “it’s Disney”.

The same principle is manifest in publishing. Del Rey isn’t going to be releasing cozy mysteries with titles like Lemon Meringue Madness, and if you’re waiting for Harlequin to publish a six-hundred page literary novel with allusions in the original French and a textured analysis of symbolic-interactionist theory, I hope you’re a patient soul. That’s not what they’re about, and their readers know it.

And what is Christian publishing about? What promises does it make? To many readers, one of its most crucial promises is that it will be clean – that they can get the story they want without the unsavory content they don’t. All such readers could doubtless find books in the secular market they would enjoy, but the finding is so much easier in the Christian market. They expect that Christian publishers will adhere to certain standards, and depend on it.

Readers who want different standards, or even exceptions to the old ones, may be asking for more than they know. New standards and too many exceptions do something dangerous. They break the brand. They break the promise.

The Bonds Of Friendship


Tuesday
Aug 29, 2017

“I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”

Those words, spoken by Gandalf at the end of Return of the King, poignantly convey something we all have and will feel. The dual joy and pain of having close friendships. This thing called friendship is a beautiful, breathtaking reality that sometimes we take for granted.

This year, I was privileged to work on a team of college-age students to plan a national student convention. After months of laboring alongside one another, we finally reached the end of the journey this past week when the convention took place. After which we had to say our farewells and scatter back to our homes across the country.

And to be honest, it was hard. Why? Because as humans, we’re wired for relationships.

Why We Need Relationships

Being lonely is one of the most awful things we can imagine, and so we crave the close connection brought by deep friendships. This truth of needing relationships comes into beautiful focus in almost any story you read and points to the wonderful ways in which friendship enrich our lives.

Think of the trio from the Harry Potter books. What would Harry and Ron and Hermione have done without each other? All the adventures they went on, ways they banded together, moments where they worked as a team when the situation was dire.

Or what about Doctor Who and his various companions? It’s not a coincidence that he gallivants through space and time with someone along for the ride. No matter how cool that job would be, it wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable without someone with which to share the memories and experiences.

Friendship goes beyond mere companionship, however. As so beautifully illustrated in Lord of the Rings, it can literally shape the outcome of lives. What would Frodo’s quest have been without the Fellowship to encourage, guide, and support him along the way? How would the story have ended were it not for the unbreakable bonds of friendship between him and Sam?

Image via lotr.wikia.com

Time and again, not only in Lord of the Rings but across stories and genres and worlds, this theme occurs. At the end of the day, what would life be without relationships?

Epic tales span kingdoms, whisk us to far-off lands, and paint pictures of the world as it may become. Yet without the characters, their interactions and dynamics and relationships, the stories would fall flat.

This goes back to what I said about relationships being key to life. Not only key to life, but pivotal in accomplishing tasks or achieving success. Like braids in a rope, together we’re stronger than we are individually.

Friendships in Stories

Gotta love a Gandalf quote.

When stories capture those moments that are so true to reality it gives us chills, they direct us back to this truth. We relate to them on a deeper level, and so the unfolding tale resonates within our souls.

We see Gandalf and the hobbits bidding farewell at the Grey Havens, and it pierces our hearts because we’ve felt that same sense of sorrow. We understand the sadness of the Pevensie children as they slowly begin to leave their Narnian friends to go on with their lives in this world.

It’s ironic, really. As these tales illustrate, we want to be close to others to ease the pain of loneliness, yet that closeness brings about its own type of pain. However, it’s a pain well worth it in the end.

Lest I sound gloomy, this isn’t a one-sided coin. Just as stories speak to these melancholy times, they also point us toward hope and joy. Don’t forget that though Sam watched Frodo sail into the west and then returned to life in the Shire, he too eventually passed over the Sea to see his beloved Mr. Frodo again.

The Pevensies may have left Narnia for a time, but where did they end up? In the true Narnia, reunited with their friends and family.

So the golden threads of friendship run, turning at times through shadows of separation but coming at last to their full completion. As Christians, we should be doubly encouraged. We have the assurance that, as the Pevensies discovered, the friendships they formed lasted forever.

As we follow tales of bravery and courage, let us remember the characters that breathe life into those tales. Let us marvel at the gift of friendship displayed and remember those closest to us. Our Sam Gamgees and Ron Weasleys and Reepicheeps.

Because quests come and go.

Dangers are fleeting.

Homes may change.

But those around us, with whom we share a deep bond of fellowship—they last for eternity.

How have stories reflected friendship in ways that resonated with you?

Speculative Stories, The Eclipse, And Other Rare Space Phenomena


Monday
Aug 28, 2017

Last week here in North America we had the opportunity to observe a rare phenomenon in space—a total eclipse of the sun, at least in some places. In fact, in portions of approximately ten states. The solar eclipse event occurs when the moon passes between the earth and the sun and as a result, casts its shadow on the earth.

What I find interesting is that this kind of unusual space event does not find its way into more stories, either science fiction or fantasy. Or, sure, Star Trek and its various iterations had plenty of worm holes and nebula and star clusters and quantum singularities. I mean, their mission was to explore strange new worlds and to seek our new life, so space needed to have interesting things and places for them to explore. The rare space phenomena were woven into the fabric of the stores, and consequently “rare” wasn’t so very rare.

But what about other stories, not dependent upon the odd or occasional space event as part of the setting and/or the conflict? How many stories capitalize on the appearance of a Halley’s Comet, for instance? Or something as “scientifically impossible” as the sun standing still for a day?

Or sure, there are the end-of-the-earth stories that have a comet colliding with earth, but I’m thinking about fantasy worlds that have some space phenomenon as part of the setting or a significant plot point.

I wonder if their rarity might be because such events would seem to take the reader beyond the realm of believability and smack more of the dreaded deus ex machina—an unexpected power or event seen as a contrived plot point.

Of course a skilled writer could properly foreshadow such an event, but still these kinds of natural and powerful events are out of the control of the characters in the story, and therefore may not contribute to the struggle and the overcoming which the protagonist needs to be a part of.

But other aspects of nature have long served as obstacles to a hero succeeding in his quest. So why not sudden darkness? Or a meteor shower? Or sun flares? Or the “Northern Lights”? Again, I’m aware that science fiction might be doing more of this than I’m aware of, but I am thinking about fantasy worlds, places that people create which seem strangely void of any unusual space activity.

Sure, there are stories set on worlds that have two moons, but is there ever an eclipse of one? How does that effect the world? The people and animals in the world?

Because here in our world, reports came in that the total solar eclipse last week had some odd effects. Not unexpected, but sill, the event did not happen in a vacuum. And I’m thinking that fantasy worlds also ought not exist in a vacuum in which space has no oddities or occasional happenings.

But perhaps there are more stories out there that use space and I’m simply not aware of them. Do you have any in mind that I’m overlooking? Have you written a story that uses an event in space as something critical to the story? How do your characters understand space phenomena—as something that is the natural part of the world or as something God orchestrated to enhance or foil the hero in his quest? Should space happening become a greater part of stories, even fantasy stories?

Geeks and Non-Geeks Can Both Enjoy Fantastic Stories


Friday
Aug 25, 2017

My 9-year-old daughters love to be thought of as strange. Truly love it.

I regularly refer to one of them as an “odd little duck,” and her face lights up every time. “Thank you,” she says, and usually as an afterthought, “you’re weird, too.”

It’s shorthand in my house for “I love you and everything about you.” That it’s okay to not be like everyone else, to not like the same stuff as whatever is popular that particular hour — to actually have your own thoughts, dreams, preferences, and opinions is both modeled and celebrated daily.

My oldest daughter likes some of the same stuff as her friends, and encourages them to check out whatever nerdy thing she’s into. And whether they enjoy it or not, it’s okay with her. She has a group of friends, and they make her happy. They all like some of the same stuff, and diverge on others. In their friendship, they focus on the common ground.

When I was in college, the majority of my friends were geeks. Like, full-on nerds. They were also artists, writers, dreamers, geniuses, and great people to be around. A few of them have gone on to become full-time web designers, Computer programmers, math teachers, or scientists.

I took exactly one science course in college, one computer course, and zero mathematics. I’d had my fill of the rest in advanced high school classes. It wasn’t that those subjects didn’t interest me. Science just wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life.

When we got together, we took in science fiction movies, played Magic: The Gathering, did some role-playing, or sat around with huge cups of coffee discussing those things on a deep, philosophical, distinctly college student level.

We had differences. We still do. (I’m proud to still call most of them my friends.) But what mattered was where our interests converged — and more to the point, what mattered was that we had each other to call “friend.”

But this is all background. A foundation, if you will. My hope here is to illustrate a single point, to focus with laser-like intensity on one thing, and one thing only: That it is not our differences that define us, but our similarities.

In a recent post, Should Christian Fans Call Ourselves ‘Geeks’?, E. Stephen Burnett revealed that his hope with the new magazine venture, Lorehaven, is to essentially cast a wide net for fans of science fiction and fantasy, particularly in churches and other Christian groups. Though Lorehaven will embrace both its geek heritage and the books the magazine will showcase, he’s chosen to downplay the label of “geek” in favor of more inclusive messaging.

I applaud this move.

Every summer, a new science fiction blockbuster comes out and rakes in millions from fans ranging from lovers of action movies to full-on nerds. “Geek cred” is not required to enjoy these things; one need only find them enjoyable. It’s true: you can check out the latest Star Trek movie, enjoy it, and not have an opinion who was the better Spock. You can anticipate the new Star Wars movie, and have no plans whatsoever on showing up with your hair in buns or dressed as a Wookie.

See, everyone has a little Geek in them. A little part of themselves that waxes enthusiastic about That One Thing. Whether it’s a show (or entire genre), music, computing, astronomy, art, philosophy, or whatever — we all have that thing we get excited about, want to share, want everyone around us to love just as much as we do.

But the Geek, the RPG-ing, cosplaying, graphic-novel-reading Geek, is an odd duck.

And I love each and every one of them.

I love that they live and breath what they love. I love that they find unique and interesting outlets for both their enthusiasm and creativity.

I don’t do all the “stuff” other geeks do. I like science fiction and fantasy. I enjoy the occasional CCG (collectible card game) and RPG. I’m not really a fan of superheroes in general, but I have a selection of graphic novels I enjoy greatly. There are conversations I love having with my fellow sci-fi enthusiasts, and conversations I quietly slip away from. And I don’t dress up. Ever. Even on Halloween, my favorite holiday of the year, I can generally only be bothered to find a mask I can slip on and off quickly. Two years ago, I dressed as Kevin Smith’s Silent Bob, and the quick trim I gave my beard was the most effort I’d put into a costume in decades.

I just don’t have the energy to get enthusiastic about everything my friends enjoy. I’m old, I’m fat, I’m tired, and I have four kids. Sue me.

But these trappings, these peripherals, aren’t what brought us together anyway. Not really. The idea of a costume ball wasn’t what drew me to Realm Makers over the ACFW five years ago, and it’s not the thing that keeps me coming back.

Don’t get me wrong. I love to see my fellow creators in their costumes. They’re full of imagination and fun! But last year I wore a tie to the Awards Gala, and the year before that, I told everyone I was Jayne Cobb, because he dressed just like me, and it kept me from having to go back to my room for a polo shirt.

No, what brings us together as storytellers is actually decidedly similar to what brought us together as Christians.

It’s the story.

That’s the thing that unites us. That’s the reason we come together as fans and creators, in our varying degrees of outward enthusiasm.

That’s the beauty of Realm Makers, the beauty of Speculative Faith, the beauty of the Faith and Fantasy Alliance.

Cosplayers show their love for fantastic stories at the July 2017 Realm Makers conference in Reno, Nevada.

And that’s the beauty of the newly-announced Lorehaven.

You aren’t looked at funny when you let your freak (or geek!) flag fly, and you’re just as accepted if you don’t. Because we are united by The Story. You don’t have to dress as a favorite sci-fi or fantasy character to write it, and it’s cool if you decide you want to. You don’t have to pick a side in the Marvel vs. DC battle just because you happen to like space ships or elves or ghosts and ghouls.

Lorehaven, like Realm Makers, is about finding the fan, the reader, regardless of their level of enthusiasm.

Let’s recognize that fans come in a wide range and variety of interest. Some folks love military sci-fi. Some love Tolkien-esque fantasy. Some love all of it. The point of Lorehaven, so far as I’ve been able to tell, is to help every level of fan find books they might enjoy–by writers who love to create it just as much as read it.

When Pastors Criticize Popular Culture


Thursday
Aug 24, 2017

Imagine you’re stopped in public by a concerned-looking activist wearing a suit jacket, who frowns and lifts his hand-drawn sign that says: Proud Member of the Popular Culture.

“There’s something wrong with your church,” he tells you. “It’s bad. They have too many useless programs. Also you’re using the wrong Bible translation. Also your pastor sinned last Sunday by preaching something mean-spirited, and you just sat there in the pew, just smiling and nodding—if you were listening at all. You need to stop listening to those sinful, nasty sermons. Get out of that church! Those people are all hypocrites anyway!”

“What?” you sputter. “I’m sorry, who are you? You don’t know me. You don’t know—”

The activist grimaces, then leans in close to share confidential information. It’s hard to hear him. But he seems to be saying, “Deep down, I kinda think we don’t even need churches. Just come out into the world to do ministry. Do what I do. I’m all about the popular culture.”

With that, he’s off for more spiritual activism, leaving you quite confused and offended.

Who was this person? He looked familiar, and as far as you knew, he supports good causes.

But what did he have to do with you or your church?

For illustrative cases, we’re assuming you’re a Christian. You know Jesus likes to put local churches together to show the world his capital-C Church, which shows the world Himself. You know some churches are terrible. Yours is certainly flawed too.

But who is this guy to blast you and your church like that?

You walk away muttering, “What a jerk. I haven’t heard him say anything about supporting the local bodies of believers, who are part of the future-sacred Bride whom Jesus loves and saves. In fact, I’m sure I heard him say that secretly he doesn’t care about churches at all.”

Now you know how Christian fans may feel when pastors critique popular culture.

Just reverse examples. The parallels aren’t exact, but we can start here:

  • Both churches and popular culture (which is part of human culture) are gifts of God.
  • Both churches and culture are corrupt because corrupt people put them together.
  • Both churches and culture can be redeemed, because Jesus gives common grace in the world and special grace to save human beings.
  • And both are often criticized, rightly and wrongly, by people who mess up their critiques. They haven’t tried to make sure you know first that they have studied the biblical purpose of the gift, and appreciate what that purpose is, and based on this can show you how a church or story doesn’t match the original, biblical purpose.

In this case, I’m thinking of a popular pastor/author/blogger, Kevin DeYoung, who has been going after the Game of Thrones TV series because Game of Thrones has porn in it.

Game of ThronesNow, what he says is technically correct. Many Christians are ignoring the lust-inducing moments of Game of Thrones, which by all accurate accounts feature blatant nudity and graphic scenes of sex and even rape. (Even non-Christians condemn the series for these moments.) Moreover, these scenes don’t only endanger Christian viewers, who are called to purity and to shun any lust whatsoever. These scenes also endanger the souls of their own human actors. They often face the bounded choice like, “for this scene, take off your clothes, or else your acting career won’t take off”—and violate their own consciences to do it.

DeYoung doesn’t cover all that. Sure, we can hardly expect any one person to write a book every time he critiques a popular story, especially given the limitations of one blog article.

However, when DeYoung and other solid, loving, well-meaning pastors critique popular culture, it makes sense when some Christians blanch and feel personally attacked.

Why?

Because even if you’ve heard about and trusted this pastor, you haven’t seen or heard him say anything constructive about popular culture (to say nothing of this particular story).

The pastor usually hasn’t written a book or even short article, to indicate that he knows or appreciates the purpose of popular culture in God’s plan of creation and redemption.

The pastor hasn’t shown that he can watch this show—or at least take what he’s accurately heard of it—and compare it, not just with the Christian’s call to holiness,1 but with our call to make culture and stories in the first place.

And in fact, the pastor honestly reinforces your suspicion that if he took a lie detector test and was asked, “Do you think we ought to have popular culture at all?”, he would honestly answer, “No. I think it’s all wasted time. So it really makes no sense for me to imply I only critique particular stories, when in fact I could do without any popular story at all.”

A better Game of Thrones critique would show respect for popular culture as, for lack of better term, an “institution.” Popular culture comes from human culture-making, which God Himself told humans to do in Genesis 1:24.2 So as basic as this may seem, a pastor cannot simply assume that he, and his audience, shares a common view of what human culture—with popular culture like Game of Thrones—is meant to do in the first place. We must build that foundation first. Even in little ways. Even in blog articles and comments and conversations.

Of course, some pastors legitimately don’t have time for this kind of ministry.3

In that case, I’d honestly suggest they need to do this, because human culture is part of their mission to apply the Gospel to every area of life, not just the familiar churchy topics.

But if they’re not comfortable in this work, they’d best outsource it to Christians who can.

Pastors, please don’t step out to critique popular culture, or a popular story, if you can’t also do the heavier lifting and explore the original good purpose of human culture. If you can’t do both, do neither. Leave that to the Christian non-pastors who do this sort of thing. You need them and they need you for the Church’s purpose: using our gifts together to tell and show Jesus’s redemption of people and then of the whole world, including its cultures.

  1. In all this, we should not neglect this divine call. In this case, some of DeYoung’s critics do not show they have studied and appreciate God’s call to holiness. They seem only to want to defend their choice on other grounds.
  2. “The cultural mandate is the command to exercise dominion over the earth, subdue it, and develop its latent potential (Gen. 1:26-28; cf. Gen 2:15). God calls all humans, as those made in his image, to fill the earth with his glory through creating what we commonly call culture.” See “What is the cultural mandate? Who is it given to?” from 9Marks.org.
  3. Often I wonder how busy pastors make time for blogging and book-authoring. That’s crazy dedication, and yet it’s a bonus service that the body of Christ so desperately needs.

Pain and Pleasure


Wednesday
Aug 23, 2017

Tattoos frequently pop up in science fiction and fantasy stories (and erotica *shudder*). They look cool, they tell stories of their own, they add a bit of an edge to a character, and sometimes they can even be magical. As with all things, our imagination exceeds reality. But let’s step out of the realm of fiction and into the real world. What would you say if I told you that getting a tattoo is a lot like writing a book? Having spent considerable time doing both, I can testify that writing and getting tattooed are remarkably similar experiences.

First, there’s the idea. You find inspiration everywhere, and ideas drift across your mind like seeds falling on fertile soil. Some are blown away, others sprout but wither and die. And some take root, sending up feeble shoots at first, but then blossoming into more than just an abstraction. You think, “Oh yeah, this is it. This is what I’m going to do.”

When the big day arrives, there is no insignificant amount of fear, but there is also excitement and eagerness to get started. You sit in the chair, take a deep breath, lower your head, and say, “Let’s do this.” You know it’s going to be no easy task but you’re stoked. You can take the pain. You’re a beast.

After a short time, you soon think, “What have I gotten myself into?” It’s starting to hurt. A lot. The euphoria hasn’t completely worn off but you’re starting to realize how long this is going to take. You begin to worry and feel nervous, because the end is still a long way off.

Image copyright DC Comics

The pain keeps coming. You grind your teeth. You grip your chair. You think, “Why the heck am I putting myself through this?” It seemed like such a good idea in the beginning, but now you’re stuck in the middle, bleeding everywhere, and you’re nowhere near finished.

“I can’t do it. I’ve got to tap out. I’ll look like a wimp, but I have no choice.”

“Yes, you can. You’ve made it this far, and how will you look with a half-finished result? Just power on through. You can do it!”

“No, I can’t. I’m going to die. This is how it ends.”

“You’re an embarrassment, you know that?”

An eternity passes. You’re disoriented, maybe even delusional. You feel like a train wreck. Suddenly, you realize, “Whoa, I’m almost done. Wait a minute…I’m almost done!” You can’t believe you’ve made it this far. And yet, strangely, you feel kind of sad that it’s ending. You’ve been on this painful journey for so long, you have forgotten what it’s like to unclench your fists and relax your shoulders. The pain has become almost comforting.

It’s over. It’s finished. You feel a twinge of regret, wishing that it could perhaps go on a little bit longer, but then you realize that you made it! You want to raise your arms in victory and pound your chest, but you’re too sore do to anything except exhale a long, slow breath. You walked through fire and came out alive.

This deserves a celebration, or at least telling all of your friends and family about your tremendous accomplishment. They’re probably not as enthusiastic about your ordeal as you are, and a few are rather patronizing, but you’re too happy to notice. You walk around like you’re ten feet tall. The people you pass on the street have no idea of the mountain you’ve conquered.

And almost immediately, before you’ve even had a chance to calm your exuberant spirit, the next idea starts to take root in your mind…

Abandoned By The Lonely God


Friday
Aug 18, 2017

“Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”

So goes Neil Gaiman’s paraphrase of G. K. Chesterton. Both Gaiman and Chesterton, and many others besides, recognized the power of art to give hope to the hopeless. But, Gaiman and Chesterton had very different visions of where this hope might come from. Where Gaiman’s paraphrase leaves our salvation in the passive voice, Chesterton continues:

What the fairy tale provides for him [the child] is a St. George to kill the dragon. Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.

Knights of God are generally assumed to be competent.

Chesterton trusted God, and the “knights of God,” to keep the darkness at bay. But who kills Gaiman’s dragons? His paraphrase of Chesterton was meant to sum up the experience of Coraline, a young girl who had to face a strange world, and the monsters in it, with only her own wit and resilience. In this story, and many like it, what is more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear, is the self.

Coraline’s victory comes after all of the adults in her life are defeated. Why could Coraline count on herself when her relatives couldn’t? If we were faced with the same situation, how could we make sure we came out as resourceful Coralines and not hapless fairy tale grown-ups? Calling the story’s assurance into question this way is narratively out of bounds and not at all charitable, but quite difficult to avoid once you’ve thought of it.

This happens over and over. People need faith, and when they cannot have it in God, they will have it in something, even if this faith does not stand scrutiny.

Is the Doctor a good god?

Take Doctor Who. People have faith in Doctor Who. Not just as entertainment, but as an idea. Sometimes this idea is that life is worth living and people are worth loving even when the universe is big and scary and dangerous and at the end rewards the just and the wicked alike with a big fuzzy soup of heat death. As Craig Ferguson put it, “the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism.”

Not pictured: the triumph of intellect and romance.

Precisely why this triumph occurs, and who can be trusted to provide it, is an exercise left to the viewer, and one that arguably has its roots in bad taste.

But we shall proceed anyway.

The problem begins with how the audience is supposed to relate to the Doctor. The human companions provide a natural audience viewpoint, making their protector a good fit for a “knight of God.”

But, the Doctor could never be a knight of God. Gods in the universe of “Doctor Who” are nothing but trouble, at best the benign illusions of primitive peoples and at worst active deceptions by malevolent powers.

Though he would never accept the label, The Doctor is closer to being a god himself, facing every conflict with an overwhelming technological advantage and hardy alien physiology that makes the Christ parallels too gauche to reference directly. But the Doctor exists in a universe, and for an audience, which believes it is too grown-up for gods. Surely the message isn’t that we are supposed to sit back and wait for God by another name.

So, perhaps we are meant to become The Doctor ourselves. After all, it is his intellect that saves the day, and his panache and resourcefulness that we might be inclined to imitate.

But this, too, is hardly a comforting aspiration. Whether it’s a wand in the shape of a screwdriver or knowing just which button to push, The Doctor’s intellect is so far beyond our own that the writers generally have no choice but to depict it as magic.

This abstraction often undermines the show’s claim to a more romantic view of the universe. To the people on the receiving end, it makes little difference whether they were destroyed by a word salad of Star Trek particles or a common cruise missile. When The Doctor wraps his enemies in chains and drops them down a shaft, the fact that his bindings are made from impossible sci-fi metal doesn’t save him from looking like a common Mafioso.

You come to me, on the day of my regeneration, and ask for mercy?

The story’s writers even go so far as to make The Doctor’s intelligence utterly impossible for a human. One of the companions temporarily gains his brainpower through a science miracle, only to have to seal it up later because it was too much to handle. On this point, the writers could hardly be clearer: even if through some inimitable fluke you managed to become as smart as The Doctor, you could never handle it.

I suspect, even in Chesterton’s imagination, that the inspiring figures of the “knights of God” were not meant to inspire in perfectly logical ways. Fairy stories don’t require real dragons to invoke real fear, and their knights are still quite inspiring as romantic abstractions rather than diligently rendered historical feudal lords.

But the dragons in “Doctor Who” aren’t always fictional. On the edges of “Doctor Who”’s treatment of the universe is the Lovecraftian notion that the universe is dark, vast, and full of forces utterly indifferent to human flourishing. While we are not asked to believe in literal Daleks, we are left open to the possibility that something equally dangerous is out there, or here already, and we’re only wrong in the particulars.

Beyond that, loneliness, listlessness, selfishness, even the universe’s crippling vastness and inevitable ignominious end—there is no suggestion that we are meant to believe these bogies are limited to the screen.

Where, then, is the place for faith? In waiting for The Doctor we know will never come? Or in trying to become that which we can never be? These questions will be asked, but, in the realm of The Doctor, they will never, ever be answered. Silence will fall.

Top Six Ways Christian Culture Is Just The Worst


Thursday
Aug 17, 2017

Christians are pretty terrible, and even worse because they make Christian culture.1

Let’s face it: Christians just aren’t very good artists. Instead of exploring truth, we make propaganda. Instead of chasing creative excellence, we rip off other stories. And sometimes we even make our version of “art” only so we can sell stuff to children and adults.

Don’t believe me? Don’t lie. Everyone already believes me, because you can find these kinds of written pieces everywhere on the internet! (Look, there goes another one.)

So what if we drop yet another un-creative, Christian addition into this creativity pool? It only fits with our theme, ironically! Let’s look at the top six ways Christian culture ignores the best of human creativity—truth-telling, originality, and artistic expression—and is just the worst:

1. This TV kids’ cartoon that is the preachiest and most religious ever

This cartoon ran during the 1990s. It featured a team of kids who get special powers. They’re aided by a messianic figure clad in suspicious attire. These kids travel the planet to preach the one true message of salvation that can stop evil and save the world.

Who needs their message most? Maybe it’s the villains who are so over-the-top ridiculous. They’re caricatures. They have no complex motives like you’d see in the best non-Christian storytelling. They’re just eeeevil! Well, with that kind of simplistic, shallow portrayal of other human beings, you know there must be Christians involved. Just the worst!

2. Blatant Pixar ripoffs that teach hilarious moralistic lessons

Some Christians can’t stand it when the world has better stories than them. But what can these subpar “creators” do? Why, rip off the world, of course. In this case, a bunch of unoriginal evangelical believers working in low-rent sort-of-animation studios just up and stole from Pixar films, such as Up, Ratatouille, and of course Cars.

The results are as terrible as you’d expect, by all internet accounts. Such as this one thing, made by Christians. Here a rebellious teen car runs away from home, smokes cigarettes, and learns valuable lessons about not doing those things, plus peer pressure.

Come on, Christians! Why can’t you do better?

3. Disney knockoffs that steal princesses and other movies just to cash in

The world creates great stories, but Christians are just the worst at original things. That’s why only Christians rip off famous movies such as Disney movies.

Here we see the wild Christian who just wants to push religious values, instead of valuing art. Instead of making his own culture, he appropriates Disney culture of princesses and fairy tales. These Christians can’t even release this shlock to theaters. They have to go direct-to-video.

Just the worst.

4. This terrible new movie with no story, only sermonizing

Sure, Christians are all about truth. But why do they talk about it all the time in everything they make? Why do they cut creative corners and drone on and on about their beliefs, even when no one is listening? Yet somehow they keep getting money for these new “artistic” projects that don’t care for story, but repeat the same boring sermons over and over.

With this example, you probably didn’t even know it had released to theaters even now. This kind of faith propaganda, over story, is worse than inconvenient. It’s just the worst.

5. Cutesy, kitschy, or even offensive products that don’t reflect reality

“Jesus junk” is altogether terrible. You’ve probably seen this stuff at your grandparents’ house, even if they’re not Christians. Usually it’s plastic or ceramic figures, called “collectibles” because “collect” is all you can do with them. They have these cutesy faces and/or some kind of tie-in to Route 66, Christmas, or Elvis Presley.

In fact, there are too many varieties to list here. So we can’t even share a photo. We also avoid showing examples, because some of these things repeat “retro” notions like sexism and racism. Clearly only Christian culture can be responsible for this sort of thing. But only other Christians eat this stuff up.

6. This kids’ movie with cute animals preaching their fake religion, and this YA movie series about a woman with no other personality or goals and so she only lives for the affections of a kinda-rapey monster man

7. BONUS: this breakfast cereal

Christians can’t leave well-enough alone. Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes brand cereal is fine on its own. No one needs to come along with some kind of “Jesus”-ified improvement. It only turns out terrible, as you can see below (the cereal clearly made by Christian culture is at the far right):

Amazing. Christian culture is just the worst!

  1. Note: satire.
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