Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Pervasive Assaults on the Truth of Genesis!

If Christian faith depends on a literal reading of Genesis, then evolution is not the only problem we face. Consider the science of meteorology.

In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened. And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights.

--Genesis 7:11-12

The fountains also of the deep and the windows of heaven were stopped, and the rain from heaven was restrained;

--Genesis 8:2

From this we know with 100% certainty that rain comes through windows in a solid sky. When the windows are opened, rain falls; when they're closed, rain stops falling. The Humanistic "cloud theory" of rain can only be seen as an attempt to place man on God's throne. How can an impudent TV weatherman possibly know when God is planning to open or close the windows of heaven?

We must also dispose of this nonsense about "telescopes." How could a "Hubble Space Telescope" take pictures of galaxies tens of billions of light years away but be unable to get pictures of the windows of heaven, which must be much closer to the Earth if rain is to reach the ground within a reasonable time period after the windows are opened. Furthermore, even if the solid sky, the windows, and the waters above the heavens are all perfectly transparent, no object more than 6000 or so light-years from Earth can possibly exist, since there would not have been time since Creation for the light to reach us. It might also be wise to stay away from binoculars, as they might be used to look at the so-called "Andromeda galaxy," which is supposedly a collection of as many as a trillion stars that is 2,500,000 light-years away from Earth.

Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

--Genesis 3:1

Many Christians interpret this passage as referring to Satan. But that's one of those dodgy non-literal esoteric interpretations of Genesis. The text doesn't say the serpent is a rebellious angel or any sort of spirit being. It compares his intelligence to the "beasts of the field," rather than to angels. The verse wouldn't even make sense using that esoteric interpretation, since any angel (or even the humans, and they're not particularly bright in this story) would obviously be more clever "than any beast of the field." It would go without saying. The passage only makes sense if it's talking about a literal serpent. So now we know that snakes are intelligent, and they can talk with perfect diction.

And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou [art] cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life: And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.

--Genesis 3:14-15

Once again, the serpent is classed with other animals rather than angels, making it perfectly clear that this is an ordinary snake. We learn here that snakes originally flew, or perhaps hopped about on their tails instead of crawling on their bellies, and that they eat dirt rather than small animals as secular herpetologists and pet-store employees claim. Who are you going to believe, the Bible, or mere men? Verse 15 is often esoterically interpreted as a prophecy of Christ. Since Genesis is literal narrative, this cannot possibly be the case. The serpent's "seed" is paired with the "seed" of the woman. Since Jesus was a descendant of Eve rather than Eve herself, the "seed" of the serpent would have to be a descendant, rather than the serpent himself in order for the parallelism of the passage to make sense. Since Jesus tells us that angels "neither marry nor are given in marriage," a serpent-shaped fallen angel could not have a descendant whose head would be bruised by Jesus. A proper literal reading disposes of this suspicious esoterica. The passage is simply a description of the mutually-antagonistic relationship between humans and snakes. When a snake strikes a human, it can't exactly go for the throat--it strikes the heel. And when a man wants to kill a snake, he attacks the head.

Furthermore, the Bible never says elsewhere that Satan crawls on his belly or eats dirt. He is portrayed as being able to enter Heaven (the Book of Job), and teleport himself and at least one other person from place to place (the temptation of Christ narratives in the Gospels, where Satan transports Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple and challenges him to jump off). To suggest as the esoteric interpretation does, that Satan escaped punishment for causing the debacle in Eden by using an unfortunate snake as a puppet borders on blasphemy. Could God be so easily fooled that he would curse snakes instead of the Satanic puppet-master? Of course not! The esoteric reading has to be false. The clear literal interpretation of the historical record of Genesis tells us that snakes can talk, since God did not deprive the serpent of its power of speech as part of his curse.

And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top [may reach] unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the LORD said, Behold, the people [is] one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

--Genesis 11:4-6, emphasis added

This inerrant historical narrative states quite clearly--from the mouth of God himself!--that the people were capable of building a tower that would reach heaven. The word used for "heaven" here is "shamayim," the same word used in the passages about the windows of heaven. The narrative also tells us the methods the builders used, which should provide us with vital clues as to how high above the Earth the solid sky must be:

And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter. [sic]

--Genesis 11:3

According to Wikipedia, the tallest known pre-industrial building (the Lincoln Cathedral) reached a height of 525 feet with the construction of a central spire that has since been destroyed. Like its closest pre-industrial rival, the Great Pyramid of Giza, this is a stone building, as opposed to the weaker brick construction of the Tower of Babel. While the engineers of ancient Babel may have been exceptionally skillful, or simply had access to such a prodigious labor force that they could significantly exceed the height of these structures by widening the base of the structure, the limited structural strength of their materials places an upper limit on the height of the tower. Even if we grant that a completed Tower of Babel would have been twice as tall as the Lincoln Cathedral (1,050 feet), this casts doubt on modern claims to the construction of steel-reinforced "skyscrapers" such as the alleged Burj Dubai tower in Dubai at 2,684 feet tall. Do you want to believe the Bible, or a bunch of Muslims?

Even if we do accept the existence of these so-called "skyscrapers" (perhaps they do, in fact, scrape the sky...), the historical narrative of the Tower of Babel certainly rules out such atheistic fictions as "airliners" that fly at 30,000 feet, "satellites," "space probes," "manned spacecraft" and "moon landings."

I could go on, but I think I have demonstrated the pervasiveness of Humanist falsehoods which would lead us to question the literal historical truth of the Book of Genesis, and irreparably damage Christian faith.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Chayatocha: Meet the Paradines II: Mary Sue?

Chayatocha, pp. 22-32

After a little more family small talk, the wagon train stops for the night, and Paradine notices the leader of the wagon train, a cavalry officer named Jeremiah Wills talking in hushed tones with several other men and decides to go find out what's going on.

"Could be real trouble...if his report's half reliable, we--

"As Paradine approached the group, the men went silent."Captain," the schoolteacher said in greeting, the tension around him palpable."Mr. Paradine."Is there a problem?"

"Nothing we can't handle," said a wiry, hatchet-faced man at Wills' side, a measure of derision in his voice. 

He scratched at his long, scraggly beard.  "You just go back to your books, and leave things to us."

There it was again.

"Hello, Mr. Garrett," Paradine said flatly, noting the man's filthy clothes and level of personal hygene--low even for such a journey.  "I want to thank you for doing your best to assure the rest of us an ample supply of water."

The remark, on razor's wings, sailed directly over the man's head.

"There'll be enough," the puzzled man gruffly replied.  "Gonna have to go easy though.  It's a long way to Fort Boise."

Paradine felt the eyes upon him, taking note of his brocade vest and glittering watch fob, the silver rims of his eyeglasses, and his manicured fingernails.  All those things, he knew, were seen by some as alien, even threatening or undeserving of respect.  Perhaps that disrespect also grew out of the way he moved and the vocabulary he used, reflecting his refined upbringing and learned mind.

...It was nothing new--all his life he had felt like something of an outsider, and in his younger days he had suffered as the continual target of bullies...

Paradine, with his gentleman's clothes and manicured fingernails, is contrasted with Asa Garrett, who almost sounds like the man in the Beatles song "Come Together."  Garrett becomes the stand-in for the jocks and bullies who pick on the geeky, preppy Paradine.  In addition to his poor hygene, Garrett isn't too bright (he fails to catch Paradine's subtle dig), and it is implied that he's not very good at his job--finding water for the party.  

This is one of the classic signs of a "Mary Sue" (authorial self-insert) character: the character(s) who don't like the Mary Sue are all unsympathetic, and the Mary Sue shines in comparison to them.  The characters who dislike the Mary Sue are representative of the people who don't like the author, so their portrayal becomes a "Take That!" against the author's real-life enemies.  Unlike Jenkins and LaHaye however, Johnson is not writing a revenge fantasy.  He makes an effort to humanize Garrett instead of just consigning him to the fires of Divine wrath without a backward glance:
"Asa don't mean no harm," the captain said.  "Barely thirteen when his father died...worked on the family farm most of his life, trying to support his mother and sisters.  He never got any formal schooling.  I reckon he's a bit envious of you, in his way."

"I don't mind him." [Paradine said]

"Good man, really...ornery as the day is long, but a good man."
We find more "Mary Sue" clues on the 'about the author' page:
SHANE JOHNSON, a writer, graphic artist and spaceflight historian...also served as producer/director for the video documentary Apollo 13: Flight for Survival, and was a design consultant for the award-winning HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon.  Shane lives in Texas with his wife and son. (bold emphasis added)
Sound familiar?  Judging by his writing credits, Johnson is "a man of education and reason" like his character Daniel Paradine.  I think it would be fair to say that the Paradines do trigger the Mary Sue O' Meter a bit, but Johnson is a good enough writer not to make them the center of the Cosmos.
"We have butter, by the way," Lisabeth said.  "I put some milk in the churn, and the rough ride took care of it as we went along."

"Good thinking," her husband smiled.

"I got the idea from Martha Potter, so I can't take full credit."
Martha Potter is not a major character.  This is the first we ever hear of her.  Her appearance here shows that Johnson does not share Jenkins' urge to make his characters Teh Bestest And Smartest And Most Better Than Everyone Else Characters Evah, Evah, Evah.  Daniel Paradine is not the leader of the wagon train, nor is there any indication in the story that he "should" be.  He respects Captain Wills' judgment and accepts his leadership.  Compare that to these gems from Left Behind:
They cheered when they saw Buck. These people, the ones he had worked with, fought with, irritated and scooped, now seemed genuinely glad to see him. They could have no idea how he felt. ...
 We must be reminded, once again, that Camshaft has "scooped" and fought with irritated his co-workers, i.e., that he's just plain better than them, and he passes up no opportunity to plant his boot prints on their backs.  But they're glad to see him, oh yes!  Like frequently-kicked dogs, they still welcome their master home with wagging tails.  Then there's this scene, where Ray-gun is talking to a nameless Pan-Continental employee on the phone about his flight schedule, and when he will be returning to Chicago:
"Saturday night."


"Why? Got a date?"

"Not funny."

"Oh, gosh, I'm sorry, Captain. I forgot who I was talking to."

"You know about my family?"

"Everybody here knows, sir."
This vignette takes place in the context of the Rapture, the sudden disappearance of every young child in the world, as well as every Real, True Christian.  Everyone would be missing loved ones.  If not their own children, then nieces or nephews or grandkids.  And not having read the back of the book, they'd have no way to know that it couldn't happen again at any time.  But Rayford's loss of his wife and son is the only loss that matters.  "Everybody here" is talking about the disappearance of Rayford's family, as if they've forgotten all about their own vanished loved ones.  That's just how important and superior Ray-gun is.

What is the ultimate defining line of the towering, self-important assgasket?  "Do you know who you're talking to?!"  Any character who delivers that line in a movie is sure to be a villain, or at best the recipient of a well-deserved lesson in humility as the plot proceeds.  Ray-gun is That Guy.  But in Ellenjay's world, That Guy isn't the villain or the authorial punching bag, he's the Mary Sue.  The Mary Sue O' Meter pegs so hard here that Ray-gun doesn't even have to deliver the line!  The faceless minion does it for him, with a subservience befitting some dopey 1950's private fawning before a general in a military-themed slapstick comedy, or a happy slave from Song of the South.  "Oh gosh!  I'm sorry, Captain, I forgot who I was talking to."  Gosh?!

So, if the Paradines are authorial avatars for Johnson (and his wife and son), they say good things about Shane Johnson as a man, especially when contrasted against the grand-scale sociopathy of Ellenjay's characters in the Left Behind Series.  The Paradines are probably intended to represent Johnson's ideal of what a family ought to be like. 
"How nice it will be to be back in a house again.  I'll never complain about mopping floors or washing windows as long as I live." [Lisabeth said]

"I'm going to hold you to that." [Daniel said]

"Just because I'm not complaining doesn't mean you won't be right there helping me."

"I wouldn't have it any other way."
If anything, Daniel Paradine is too enlightened and progressive for his times.  But then, as a schoolteacher, he won't be working himself to physical exhaustion at manual farm labor, so it's at least plausible that he would help Lisabeth out with the household chores.  Lisabeth shows a degree of self-assertiveness here, and Daniel welcomes it.  He shows no desire to dominate his wife, and he doesn't have the sort of ego that quails at the prospect of doing "women's work."  In a book written by an Evangelical Christian for Evangelical Christians, this portrayal of a progressive and equal partnership in marriage as an ideal is remarkable and praiseworthy.  It shines especially bright against the dark misogynistic shadows of the mega-selling standard-bearer of Evangelical fiction.

Arrival at SkeptiCon

Wow, it took me way too long to start relating my adventures at Skepticon II, but better late than never...

It was a long drive, but well worth it!  Upon reaching the campus of Missouri State University, I tried to park in the Visitors' Parking Lot, only to find that the spaces are metered. Yes, metered.  At 20 minutes for a quarter, the last thing I wanted to do was park there and have to leave an excellent presentation or discussion with fellow skeptics so I could run put quarters in the meter.

And so I went on a quest for a modestly-priced hotel where I could stay and, this being the day of the conference, perhaps most importantly, park my car so I could get out of it.  Driving around, I happened upon this very cool retro-themed Best Western, the Route 66 Rail Haven.

Walking into the office to ask about their rates, who should I see, but Jesus Seminar scholar Robert M. Price and paranormal investigator Joe Nickell having a conversation!  And so, the choice of hotel wasn't hard.  And so, having arranged for a place for me and my car to sleep, I headed off to SkeptiCon II.

At the registration table, I met P.Z. Myers, wearing the suit he wore to the CreoZerg:  Note the Crocoduck tie!  The thing around my neck is a very cool Steampunk Cuttlefish pendant from Noadi Art.

The convention started out with a student debate on the existence of God.  I really wanted to go to that, but I ended up missing it...

...since I couldn't pass up the opportunity to have lunch, and fascinating conversation with Robert M. Price and a couple other attendees.  Price is equally at home discussing the complexities of New Testament scholarship and such things as comic books.  He made an interesting comparison between the four Gospels and a Superman story line in which Superman dies and is replaced by four "Supermen" who each represent his character differently, and inconsistently with the others.  He's very witty, funny, and friendly--and of course, highly knowledgeable in the field of New Testament scholarship.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Off To SkeptiCon 2!

I'm off to SkeptiCon II! There'll be an awesome line-up of speakers, so I'm totally looking forward to it. Unfortunately I don't have the technology to live-blog it, but I'll take pictures and notes and pass on my thoughts on the presentations when I return.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sunday Stories: Meet the Paradines

Chayatocha: Chapter 1 (pp. 15-29)

Sixty Years Later

The sun.
The unrelenting sun.

Daniel Paradine adjusted the brim of his hat and gazed upward, squinting in the glare as his eyes followed the lazy course of a buzzard circling high in the distance. The cloudless sky stretched on as it had for weeks, vast and blue, draped upon the wilderness around him. Mountains rose on the far horizon, their whitened tops obscured by the distance.

The steady rumble of wooden wheels filled the air, punctuated by the creaks and groans of the wagon forks and the pounding rhythm of hooves against the hard, baked soil. The sound of dozens of worn leather boots and shoes joined the percussion as they treaded the unforgiving ground.

Twelve fragile wagons, three score oxen, sixteen horses, seventeen cattle, a dozen mules, and fifty-three souls sustained by rationed food, measured water, and unbounded aspirations. An inventory of hope carried upon dreams.

With some serviceable description, some explanations of pioneer life and a dose of saccharine, Shane Johnson sets the scene. Daniel Paradine reminisces about his family’s decision to head west, and we’re introduced to his wife Lisabeth and his eight year-old son Michael.

”How can it be so hot right now, when it’s freezing at night?” Michael wondered aloud. “It wasn’t like this at home.”

Paradine indicated the peaks well to the north. “The altitude here is a lot greater than Ohio’s. At this point, probably a good six thousand feet or so. Not as high as we were, though, when the trail crested at the Continental Divide. Back at the South Pass.”

“Where the ice was?”

From this we are probably meant to see Daniel Paradine the teacher in action, taking an opportunity to explain the effects of higher altitude to his son. This is certainly a refreshing contrast to the introduction of protagonist Cameron Williams in Left Behind:

At thirty, Cameron Williams was the youngest ever senior writer for the prestigious Global Weekly. The envy of the rest of the veteran staff, he either scooped them on or was assigned to the best stories in the world.

We do not see, or even hear about via the narrator, any examples of Camshaft’s brilliant and intrepid reporting. We don’t see him dodging bullets in Belgrade or machetes in Darfur, uncovering corporate scandals or political malfeasance, or learn that his heartrending prose in a story on poverty in Appalachia sparked a national movement to do something about it. Instead, the emphasis is on how much better he is than everybody else. Whatever faults Johnson may have as a writer, he sails high over the bar set by this standard-bearer of evangelical Christian fiction.

On page 17 of Chayatocha, we learn that Paradine is “well liked, and his job as a schoolteacher had brought with it a modest level of local notoriety” in a small town in Ohio. So unlike Ellenjay, Johnson is not compelled, like some 12-year-old writer of fanfiction, to thump his chest and assert that his character is Teh Bestest Character Evar, RAAR!

Paradine does not get the chance to finish his lesson:

He went silent as he noticed something just up the way, only partly obscured within the grasses. After another moment, he recognized its form.

“Michael,” he said abruptly, “climb into the wagon and bring me my other hat, will you?”

“Which one?”

“The black one. Be careful now…”

“You stay clear of those wheels,” his mother ordered with a worried tone. “Go around behind.”

“I will, Mama,” the boy said. “I was going to.” He stood for a moment and let the rolling wagon pass, then climbed aboard at the rear, disappearing beneath the heavy canvas cover.

Lisabeth looked toward her husband. “Couldn’t that have waited until we stopped?” She paused as the realization hit, her expression one of increasing puzzlement. “Daniel, you don’t have a black hat.”

His response was a subtle nod ahead… Barely a dozen feet from the trail lay the body of a woman, contorted and decaying. Her stained cotton sundress was in tatters, her long, tangled hair still auburn and shiny.

We learn from the marker on her grave that this woman is “Charlotte Baker, Beloved Wife and Mother, Died of the Cholera, June 1857.” Her corpse was dug up from its shallow resting place by wolves. Paradine keeps his son busy looking for the non-existent hat until the body is out of sight and men from the wagon train go to re-bury it.

While this scene could be nitpicked for plot-holes (e.g, wouldn’t Michael be familiar with what hats his father had available to wear by now?), it does accomplish a few good things for the narrative. It provides a stark reminder of the dangers of the Paradines’ journey. In my opinion, the contrast between the revenant beauty of the woman’s long, shiny auburn hair and her twisted, rotting, animal-mauled corpse lends a degree of poignancy.

It also serves to reveal some information about our characters through their actions. Daniel Paradine shows sensitivity in seeking to shield his child from the worst horrors of the journey. Had he let Michael see the body and told him to “be a man” instead of crying or shying away in revulsion, he would have been shown to be a different, and rather less pleasant man. After a few short paragraphs of explanation about the virulent lethality of cholera, we get a closer look at Lisabeth:

”Dear Father, bless that poor woman and her family,” Lisabeth whispered to herself. “Wherever they are…whoever they are…in Jesus’ name, bring them comfort….” (Ellipses in original)

Lisabeth is devout and prayerful, but she’s not out to impress anybody with it. She apparently feels no need to broadcast her prayers to her family or her fellow travelers, much less impose her faith on her entire nation, as so many fundamentalists are inclined to do. It’s not an opportunity for her to harangue her unbelieving husband, deploy Pascal’s Wager and threaten him with eternal hellfire.

And perhaps most importantly, this implies that her version of Christianity is directed toward compassion for her fellow human beings.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Saturday Stories: Chayatocha vs. Left Behind

Chayatocha: Prologue (pp. 7-13)

NOTE: SPOILERS will appear in this series of posts.

April 1797

The hawk circled,
lost for a moment in the warm, loving sun.

A little boy, squinting upward as he sat cross-legged near the cooking fire, watched the large, dark bird as it rode the clear sky. Its mastery of the air amazed him, drawing forth longings he felt each new day as the young braves around him played their games, as they embarked on the hunt with their fathers, spears in hand, sharing in the ways of their ancestors.

Longings he felt, born of disparity, of loneliness.

If only I could be up there with you...

If only...

Looking down at his club foot, he tucked it under himself as if ashamed.

The medicine man had done his best, yet to no avail. The foot was no better.

Why must I be different?

So begins Shane Johnson's Christian horror novel Chayatocha (pronounced "Ky-a-toe-ka"). From these few opening lines, it is immediately obvious that Shane Johnson is a better writer by orders of magnitude than Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins of Left Behind infamy, and that his approach to Christianity is far more benign.

In the first sentence, the sun is described as "loving." This is a somewhat unusual descriptor, in that it does not give us a sensory clue the way "bright" or "hot" might have. What it does do is subtly introduce the idea that love is a cosmological force, the presence of which is direct and available. Johnson "leads with love," as it were, placing it right at the beginning of his story. Immediately following this, we are introduced to a sympathetic character, a Native American boy whose club foot keeps him from running, playing, and hunting with the other boys of his tribe.

The juxtaposition of the two yields a subtle allusion to what is arguably the most powerfully appealing part of the Judeo-Christian message: love for the outcast. This opening is almost a miniature encapsulation of Gospel stories like Jesus and the woman at the well, Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, or the accusations leveled against him by the self-righteous prigs of his time for associating with sinners and tax collectors. In a nutshell: what most people, even secular folk, would regard as the good part of Christianity.

This is a striking contrast with what we find in Left Behind. Consider this excerpt (cited by Fred Clark in his commetary):

If the [Rapture] disappearances were of God, if they had been his doing, was this the end of it? The Christians, the real believers, get taken away, and the rest are left to grieve and mourn and realize their error? Maybe so. Maybe that was the price. But what happens when we die? [Rayford] thought. If heaven is real, if the Rapture was a fact, what does that say about hell and judgment? Is that our fate? We go through this hell of regret and remorse, and then we literally go to hell, too?

The god of the LB Series would not shine a loving sun down on a Pagan Native American boy with a club foot. The message of LB is the exact opposite. There's a special in-clique, "the real believers" who are so special in LB!god's sight that they get beamed up to watch the Apocalypse from Heavenly box seats. They are somehow privileged over the Apostles and members of the early Church who were given no magic ticket out of the Coliseum and the hungry lions that waited there, the Christians of all ages who endured persecution and martyrdom for their faith, or even just had to live lives of hard work and privation. These "real believers" are too good to have to deal with the human condition. So good that they're privileged even over Christ himself, whose prayer to have the bitter cup of crucifixion taken from him was answered with silence.

And instead of love, or even the mild benevolence of a sunny day for the outcasts, LB!god wants to see the outcasts "grieve and mourn" and suffer "hell" of regret and remorse on Earth, followed by eternal torture in fire. "Maybe that was the price," for not figuring out the passcode to membership in the In-Group. And note also that the In-Group consists of "real believers" in, rather than "real practitioners" of, Christianity. For Ellenjay, who you are and what you do is irrelevant compared to whether or not you happen to have the "right" beliefs rattling about in your skull.

The only way a reader cannot recoil from scenes like this in Left Behind is to imagine themselves as card-carrying members of the In-Group, so that all that grief and mourning and regret and remorse and eternal torture is happening to Other People, over whom you are privileged to gloat because you managed not to make an "error" of belief. An error! Not wicked deeds or a corrupt heart, but a mistake, like getting a wrong answer on a pop-quiz.

This stew of malevolence is Christianity's club foot, which ought to be tucked under its ass in shame.

Returning to Chayatocha, we get this:

The valley stretched wide around him, a tapestry of lush meadows, sparkling waters, and lofty trees whose branches sang to the slightest breezes. On all sides, hazed by distance, towered a wreath of snowcapped mountains, almost impenetrable, forging at their feet a paradise hidden from the rest of the world.

And protected from it.

Thanks to Johnson's skill at description, we can actually see this place in our mind's eye, feel its soft breezes, and smell its fresh, pine-scented air. Johnson goes on to spend the rest of page eight describing the land and the idyllic Native American village in evocative detail. We get to see the forests, the lake teeming with fish and the massive, elaborately-carved totem poles that tell the story of these people, the Welakiutl.

Over the next couple pages, we see that the boy, Seukani, has a close relationship with a French trader who visits the Welakiutl village regularly.

"You speak my language well as my own son..."

"Jacques." The boy smiled, remembering.

"Yes," the trader said, nodding, seeing his own child in the boy's dark eyes and missing him terribly. "In a few months I'll be with him again. I'll tell him of you...of how proud I am of you, and how quickly you learn. It is a pity the two of you cannot meet. You would be great friends, I think."

This little vignette gives us more human warmth than can be found in the whole of the LB Series. The French trader identifying a Native American boy with his own son, and Seukani cheerfully learning the Frenchman's tongue together form a portrait of human beings reaching across the highest barriers in order to relate to one another. From his use of period details like the names, the descriptions of the "cedar-planked" houses and totem poles of the Welakiutl1 village, we get the impression that Johnson would be well aware of the racial and cultural barriers that might ordinarily keep a Frenchman from viewing a boy like Seukani as a second son, of whom he would be proud.

Shane Johnson's world-view is one that loves the created order and chooses to be present in it, seeing the people there through empathetic eyes--even when they're not "real believers." Or fake ones. His characters reach across the boundaries of "In" and "Out" groups to form genuinely caring relationships with one another. While there is no doubt that Johnson is writing his novel with the purpose of promoting Christianity, he does not drop any anvils of dogma here. Instead, here simply has his characters live the nobler passages of the New Testament in the day to day business of relating with their fellow human beings. If this isn't what Christianity is, it's what Christianity ought to be.

Ellenjay steadfastly refuse to describe the world they build, to the extent that it's often impossible to tell what day it's supposed to be, what time, or how long it's been since the Rapture. In Left Behind: The Movie, where the medium enforces visual portrayal, we're presented with a scene in which Camshaft and Ray-gun arrive at Ray's house. Camshaft waits outside in the bright daylight while Ray goes in to search for his family. We see Ray have a momentary breakdown, then start reading the Bible. Then, suddenly, it's dark, and Camshaft, still waiting outside for Ray to finally invite him in, is confronted with trigger-happy soldiers driving a M*A*S*H*-era Jeep. It's not a weird time-travel story. The books are just so out of touch with reality that the movie-makers themselves are too disoriented to make a coherent film.

So much of Ellenjay's story is mediated through telephones, it's as if they don't want to get any closer to reality than what can be heard through a phone receiver. Telephones provide an impersonal sense of distance, so that their main characters can often avoid having to talk to one another face to face. Even when they're not relating to the world through the intermediary of a telephone, the LB protagonists live within a bizarre bubble-universe in which Business As Usual continues undisturbed--for them--while (as the narrator assures us) the rest of the world is plunging into a bacchanalia of chaos, mayhem, and destruction.

As the LB Series progresses, and the world is literally destroyed around them, Ellenjay's protagonists serenely cruise along in their BAU-bubbles, basing their whole evangelism strategy on a website, which still apparently operates flawlessly despite literally apocalyptic destruction of human civilization as the Book of Revelation's dire prophecies unfold.

Johnson's characters are not so insulated from reality or their fellow human beings. When horror comes upon them--and it does--they must face it head on:

Like an ocean wave, a deep cold swept the village, rolling in across the lake. ... Above the valley a darkness coalesced, drawing itself out of nothing. Like a colossal hand it descended, rapidly widening, usurping the sun. ... Screams erupted in the distance, punctuating the roar of the wind as they rose from the hunting fields. Cries of agony, both human and animal, each in turn going silent with terrifying suddenness. Then, closer, came the wrenching crack of massive tree trunks, twisting and splintering where they stood.


"Mother? I do not understand...the dark...the cold..."

"He has come," the woman whispered to herself, her words rising in chilled white wisps, her voice heavy with dread.

"Who has come?"

She turned, realizing she had been overheard. Her eyes darted as she considered the question, debating whether to answer. Her gaze fell to the floor. Gently, she caressed the child's bare forearm, remembering the tiny infant he once had been. Slowly, deliberately, she spoke a name, one the boy had never heard.



"Chayatocha, she repeated.

"I don't understand...."

She thought better of telling him. Frightening her son would change nothing--already, it was too late.

Chayatocha is not a revenge-fantasy about how right conservative Christians are, and how fun it would be to gloat over the sufferings of unbelievers. Instead, Shane Johnson invites his fellow believers to empathize with Seukani's people by including these little human touches like a mother trying to keep what she is sure will be her child's last moments of life from being filled with terror.

The ancient legends were true--

"Do not be afraid," she reassured him, gently rocking him as she fought to disquise her own fear. "I am here, and we are together, and we are safe." But they were not, she knew.

Finally, he has come--to devour the world.

This is our introduction to Chayatocha's supernatural villain. The setup is well-executed. The descriptions are vivid, and we're given characters we can feel for as horror and tragedy strike. The monster is frightening, and there is no doubt that its destruction would be a good thing.

If this sounds like granting high praise for something any storyteller worth his or her salt ought to be able to accomplish, simply peer--if you dare--back into the soulless desert of the Left Behind series. There, the vicious world-devouring supernatural horror is presented as the authors' conception of God.


1. So far as I can tell from Google-fu, the Welakiutl resemble Northwestern coastal Native American peoples, especially the Kwakiutl of British Columbia. Someone who knows more than I do about Northwest First Nations might be able to dispute whether or not a culture like this would exist in the interior of the Oregon Territory, but it seems to me at least credible that they could. In other words, Johnson went to the trouble to research Native American cultures and sympathetically portray them, and give them authentic-sounding names instead of just throwing in Hollywood Indians with names like Running Bear or Pale Moon Two-Feathers.Back

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Fascinating Proposal for a "Theory of Everything"

I don't understand it, but I think it's incredibly interesting...

A More Glorious Dawn

I know this has been around for awhile, and lots of you will have already seen it. But after that vile bile by Limbaugh, Something Had To Be Done. :)

Rush Limbaugh Urges Environment Reporter to Become a Suicide Bomber...or Something

The whackaloonery here speaks for itself. Limbaugh tells us that environmentalists "are like the Jihad guys," and then goes on to urge a New York Times environmental reporter named Andrew Revkin to blow himself up in order to benefit the climate. What? Which is it, Rush? If environmentalists are already "like the Jihad guys," why would you have to encourage them to be like the Jihad guys? Makes no sense.

If anyone's "like the Jihad guys," it's right-wingers like you. A suicide bomber is someone who destroys themselves in an effort to kill as many of their fellow human beings as they can, in the name of their angry desert god. Right-wing climate deniers are doing pretty much the same thing, but on a planetary scale. Instead of using a strap-on explosive vest to kill a relative handful of people in a public space, climate deniers "strap on" a more slow-burning weapon--carbon emissions that are melting the ice caps as we speak.

This isn't some hypothesis of what might happen a hundred years from now. It's happening now, and faster than the direst climate models predicted. Nations with access to the Arctic Circle are already jockeying for claims to the newly-accessible continental shelf regions, thanks to the melting of North Polar ice.

Right wingers who want to do nothing to halt climate change, reduce our dependency on tyrannical Islamic regimes for energy, or prepare for Peak Oil are, in effect, destroying themselves and taking the rest of us down with them. And a rather large segment of the conservative movement--the Rapture Ready crowd--sees any horrible global disaster as good news, proof that Jesus is coming soon to beam them up so he can systematically destroy the world like a comic book supervillain. Any sensible policy initiatives--like efforts to switch to sustainable energy sources, or work for peace, or prosperity for more than a handful of billionaires, are viewed with deep suspicion as harbingers of the Antichrist's diabolical plan for Satanic world domination.

So, just like a "Jihad guy" climbing on a bus with the intent of destroying everyone aboard, right wingers like Limbaugh think wrecking the climate-control systems of Spaceship Earth in perceived obedience to their version of a wrathful desert god is a good idea.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Chayatocha, Or: Should Christian Fiction be Left Behind?

I've been following Fred Clark's brilliant deconstruction of the Left Behind Series for some time now. So far, I continue to be astonished anew by what an astoundingly horrible Babel-scale tower of fly-encrusted steaming feces it is, whenever Fred Clark at Slacktivist or one of his commentators digs some new chunk of it out with a pitchfork for analysis. I have not yet reached a point where I no longer have to re-calibrate my Disgust-O-Meter to keep it from being overloaded.

Given the enormous sales success of the Left Behind series, it's easy to generalize from the attitudes presented in those books to the attitudes and beliefs held by their audience, American conservative protestant Christians. One doesn't have to read too far into the Left Behind books, or Clark's commentary on them to realize that this could lead to some rather terrifying generalizations about a large segment of the population of the United States.

Then there's the fact that the writing in the Left Behind Series is just so utterly horrible. Again, given the sales figures, one might be led to make all kinds of unsavory judgments about the intelligence and taste of American Christians.

Though I disagree strongly with most of the beliefs and political views of "Bible-believing Christians," I would like to offer what amounts to a "case for the defense," in the form of another Christian novel, Chayatocha by Shane Johnson.

 Chayatocha is (as described by one of the comment blurbs on the back cover) a "spiritual warfare novel," or what might otherwise be called a Christian horror tale, set in the Wild West.

Here's the back jacket copy:

Daniel Paradine is a man of education and reason, devoted to his wife and son, and dedicated to leading them safely to Oregon. But when their wagon train is led into a treacherous mountain detour and horrifying attacks begin to pick apart the small group, Paradine must confront the beast responsible for the nightmare--a creature that defies all logic and spares the teacher only to accomplish its most sinister desire.

Can a man without God survive an enigmatic evil bent on destruction? Or will Daniel Paradine take the devil's deal in exchange for his family's life?

The back cover taken by itself is a better story by far than LaHaye and Jenkins' miserable abortion of a book series.

Daniel Paradine

This, in my opinion, is actually a pretty good name for a protagonist in a Western. It stands out as a little larger than life, without screaming "MAAARTY STUUUU!" It's not hard to imagine "Daniel Paradine" cocking a Winchester saddle-ring carbine as his long duster flutters in a forlorn desert breeze, should he turn out to be that sort of hero. Grizzled cowboys and miners and the like can drawl out "Paradiiine" in a way that fits with the setting. Maybe a little too close to "David Carradine," but so what, I like it.

It is notably not a porntastic Phallic Compensator name like those of the pseudo-protagonists in the LB Series, Rayford Steele and Cameron "Buck" Williams. We are not forced to choke back snickers like the centurions in Life of Brian every time we read it. So, right from the start, it looks like we might be given a protagonist we can believe in.

a man of education and reason,

OK, this is a dogwhistle. We know what's coming. Scully's Paradine's puny logic and reason will be no match for the supernatural forces he's about to be arrayed against, and his only hope will be to fall to his knees and accept Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior. This is a "spiritual warfare" novel.

In conservative Christianoid culture, "a man of education and reason" is also code for All That's Wrong With The World--lib'rul elite city-boy, not one of us Real 'Murikans. So, we might have good reason to suspect that Paradine will be portrayed unsympathetically at least until he converts.

devoted to his wife and son, and dedicated to leading them safely to Oregon

But look, a ray of light! Even though he's referred to later as "a man without God," he is described here as being able to deeply care for other human beings and have their safety as his foremost concern. Johnson could very easily have had Paradine be a loner who don't care 'bout nobody nohow, working as a hired guide for the wagon train for money, or a gold miner on a quest for riches. We could have seen Paradine mocking the preacher-man, trying to seduce all the sweet golden-haired Christian girls in their pretty little bonnets and long dresses while generally being a towering asshat (until he Sees The Light). That sort of character is a Western trope, and twisted just a little it could easily be conformed to an RTC1 propaganda-type of the Evil Unbeliever Without Morals or Meaning.

But Paradine--so far as we can tell from this back-jacket copy--does have morals, at least when it comes to his own family. And, he has a definite purpose in life: protecting them through a long, dangerous journey to Oregon. He is "devoted" and "dedicated."

Now, LaHaye and Jenkins (hereafter referred to dismissively as "Ellenjay"2) might be inclined to protest that their guy Rayford Steele was a "dedicated family man" even before his conversion. However, our first glimpse of Ray-gun shows him engaging in a creepy, long-term psychological torture/pseudo-affair with his senior flight attendant, while reasoning that his 40-year-old wife is still "attractive and vivacious enough" to keep him from nuzzling his fully-loaded 747 up to some other terminal. Well, apart from that "private necking session." But that doesn't count, she was a nameless skirt.

Our first glimpse of Paradine shows him walking alongside his family's prairie schooner,3 thinking about the family's decision to come west:

Their [eight year-old] son, Michael, of course had been a consideration. Should we take our son away from all he has known? Should we expose him to the risks of the journey? Should we leave him behind, to be cared for in familiar surroundings? For weeks, Paradine and his wife had debated, bouncing from one side of the issue to the other. Finally, the boy's unbridled enthusiasm for the adventure had helped them make the decision... (p.18)

Now, note that this is the Wild West. If there's one setting where an author can get away with having a Manly Man make the Big Decisions and have his devoted, obedient wife and child follow meekly, this is probably it. But Paradine and his wife wrestle together with their most difficult decision and they make it, together. Even their young son's input is welcomed. This looks to be a very healthy set of family relationships.

Paradine's first act when he comes out of scene-setting reminiscence is to respond to his thirsty child's request for a drink of water. He checks his pocket watch--water is a scarce resource and has to be conserved carefully--and permits the boy a drink, while urging him to go easy. So from our first meeting with him, we see that Paradine's world isn't All About Paradine. He genuinely cares about other people, their needs and feelings, and is doing his best to see them safely through a difficult journey. We learn that his ankles ache from walking, and his spectacles get coated with dust. He's a human being we can care about and empathize with.

If this seems like astonishment at what ought to be commonplace (shouldn't all novel protagonists be likable human beings?), it is a bright contrast to the sociopathic "protagonists" in the Left Behind Series. And at this point he is, according to the book jacket, "a man without God." "A man of education and reason." A man or woman fitting that description rarely gets such a sympathetic portrayal even in secular fiction. That Shane Johnson manages to avoid falling into an Intellectual Unbelievers Are Stupid or Evil rut in a Christian novel says a lot for him as an author, and as a Christian. Where Ellenjay spend more than a dozen books fantasizing about the sufferings (their idea of) God will inflict on unbelievers, Johnson is able to empathize with one and make an effort to portray him as a good human being.

Paradine must confront the beast responsible for the nightmare--a creature that defies all logic and spares the teacher only to accomplish its most sinister desire.

So now we learn that Paradine is a teacher. The first chapter explains that he has been invited to come and found a public school and a library in a frontier town in the Oregon Territory. This is something I've never seen in a Western. He's not a cowboy or a gunslinger or a sheepherder or a farmer or a gold prospector or a cattle-baron. He's not Out For Revenge. He's even a subversion of the Western trope that the "teacher" is the pretty young lady a man with a name like "Paradine" would be untying from the railroad tracks. So, even apart from the demonic horror angle, we have something fresh and new. Are you listening, Ellenjay?

a creature that defies all logic

So we can probably expect some swipes at things like rationality and critical thought, along with a weighty dollop of "just believe." But then, we get that in Star Wars, The X-Files, and so many other stories that we will probably be able to overlook this little bit of upcoming anviliciousness as long as we can like the characters and enjoy the plot.

Can a man without God survive an enigmatic evil bent on destruction? Or will Daniel Paradine take the devil's deal in exchange for his family's life?

While I think we can guess that Paradine will Accept Jesus Into His Heart, and thus become empowered to use the Magic Words to banish the demon, this blurb implies that he will face a genuine spiritual crisis. He'll be confronted with some kind of Faustian bargain with the lives of his wife and son as the stakes. This presupposes that Paradine's wife and son matter to him enough that he really might risk his soul for them.

We can't imagine anything like this happening to Ray-gun or Camshaft4 over in the LB-verse. When a demon (of sorts...) steals Ray-gun's wife and son, he goes right back to work the next day. What little narrator-stated grief he does have is never enough to alter his behavior. Camshaft apparently sprang from the brow of Zeus fully-formed, probably as Athena's afterbirth (she got all the brains and personality). He appears to have no parents who are worried about him (or whom he's worried about), no siblings, no nieces and nephews who inexplicably vanished. He's too busy buying a new car and renting a fancy new condo (with phones!5) to give a moment's thought to such things.

Chayatocha's demon would have to offer them jobs as his personal pilot and propagandist with a dinner at the Yacht Club thrown in6 to get their souls, rather than wasting their time negotiating over mere human lives. Contrast Paradine's impending spiritual crisis with the jacket copy for Tribulation Force:

Rayford Steele, Buck Williams, Bruce Barnes, and Chloe Steele band together to form the Tribulation Force. Their task is clear, and their goal is nothing less than to stand and fight the enemies of God during the seven most chaotic years the planet will ever see.

No crisis of faith for these guys. Their struggle, if it should be called such, is described in purely Manichean terms. It's them, vs. "the enemies of God." There's no choices involved when you phrase it like that. It's a Holy Crusade, where there would be no problem with a "kill them all, God will know His own" approach. It's a totalitarian morality in which your moral stature is decided by which gang you're in: the Trib Farce, or the Enemies of God.

Furthermore, the jacket copy lies! Their task is clear? Really? "Stand and fight the enemies of God"--over what? What are the stakes of their battle? What do they have to win or lose? Fight them--how? With guns and homemade grenades (Wolveriiiines!)? With underground newspapers? With a network of hidden shelters for people fleeing the Antichrist's tyranny? A single sentence could have drawn the general dimensions of the Trib Farce's struggle. "With the preaching of the Gospel forbidden on pain of death, can they reach out to a lost and dying world with the Truth?" "As the Antichrist's global totalitarian state takes form, the Tribulation Force struggles against impossible odds to provide safe havens for the thousands of new believers fleeing the darkest tyranny Earth has ever known.." In the LB Series, there are no stakes, no risk, no possibility of defeat--and hence, no heroism.

The fact that Paradine's story centers on choice--will he accept the demon's bargain or not--while the Trib Farce's centers on a Manichean "with us or with the enemies of God" identity politics is highly significant. That alone indicates to me that Shane Johnson is a far more psychologically healthy human being than Ellenjay. And, needless to say, a much better writer.

In a nutshell, I think Chayatocha will turn out to be a far, far better story than LB, with better characters and a real plot with actual suspense and struggle. From what I've read so far, I think Johnson will even handle the Anvil Drop in a way that will be no worse than Obi-Wan Kenobi telling Luke to cut himself off at the neck and just "feel."

With this, I'm kicking off what I hope will be a regular feature here, "Fiction Fridays," starting (hopefully) this Friday with the first installment of commentary on Chayatocha contrasted with the Left Behind books, Tribulation Force in particular.

ERRATA: Apparently, Camshaft doestry to call relatives, his father, and his brother Jeff. Upon failing to find out if they are still alive or not, he goes on to a higher priority: pursuing the Jewish Banker Conspiracy story.


1. "RTC" stands for "Real, True Christian," the self-assessment of the type of Christian who believes that anyone (even other Christians) who thinks differently from themselves is bound for Hell.Back

2. "LaHaye and Jenkins"---->L&J---->"Ellenjay"Back

3. The author tells us that pioneers didn't ride in their wagons, so that the wagons could be used to carry more stores and equipment instead of human weight. I don't know if this is historically true or not, but it makes sense that people traveling a long way between sources of resupply with the intent of making a home in a distant wilderness would do this. What this does show us is that Johnson cares enough about his story to think about details like this. Reading Johnson's descriptions of things like the way prairie schooners were engineered to be strong yet lightweight ("fashioned of hickory, maple or oak, with iron used sparingly and only where its strength was vital") gives the impression that he Did His Research. At least it sounds credible to readers who aren't historical re-enactors, and that's good enough, IMO, Shane Johnson would not have a Rapture nobody noticed, as Ellenjay do in the LB Series.Back

4. "Camshaft" is my nickname for Cameron Williams, the investigative reporter character in LB who prefers to be known by his porn-star alias, "Buck." Because of the way he's shown using this self-given "nickname" to insult a female supervisor in a horribly misogynistic scene in Tribulation Force, I refuse to call him "Buck" on principle.Back

5. The Left Behind novels are filled with a bizarre phone fetish, to the point that entire scenes are narrated through telephone conversations in place of description.Back

6. Believe it or not, the...well, we can't call them "heroes"...of the LB Series do accept fancy dinners and cushy jobs from the Antichrist himself, which ought to be exceedingly bizarre to the books' intended audience, seeing as the Antichrist is supposed to be the literal embodiment of pure evil.Back