NOTE: SPOILERS will appear in this series of posts.
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...
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 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