Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Night of the Living Dead Christian, by Matt Mikalatos. March 2012 CSFF Blog Tour, Day 3

The author identifies a disturbing problem so prevalent in our churches today, and that is the disjunction between so-called faith and the evidence of that faith through works. He brings this out near the end of the novel, after the werewolf’s quest for a cure has come to a successful conclusion:

...it suddenly hit me that our churches are full of these people. Faith with no deeds. We believe in Jesus, we go to church, we lead semi-decent lives, but we aren’t being transformed. We aren’t changing. We don’t think the deeds matter, because we have the “fire insurance.” We’re going to get into Heaven just fine, so we can keep lying and stealing and sleeping around and murdering and being selfish and whatever else it is we’re doing.

  But what James seemed to be saying was that a faith like that was a problem. It’s not the deeds or lack of deeds that’s a problem, it’s that something is wrong with our faith if it’s not producing actions. It’s ineffectual. It’s the sort of faith that fills a pew but leads us to a moment when we are face-to-face with Jesus and show him our works and he says, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (p 217)

Can we identify the reasons for why this problem exists? Obviously, it has been present with us since the beginning of the New Testament church as evidenced by the letter of James, “So also faith, by itself, if it does not have works, is dead,” 2:17). Part of the reason is the natural tendency of our depravity to misunderstand the implications of the gospel. Paul sensed this as well, and, like James, may have had to defend against it: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?” Rom 6:1,2.

Mr. Mikalatos understands this aspect of the gospel, that genuine saving faith produces good works, and he brings the reader face-to-face with it. There is a great need for that in our Christian writing, and Mr. Mikalatos has not shrunk from that.

Yet, there is a serious flaw in Mr. Mikalatos’s theology, and it can actually contribute to the problem. The flaw is this: he does not believe in man’s total depravity, and one's stance on total depravity  has a direct bearing on his preaching and evangelism which in turn affects the response of the unconverted. Let me explain.

In a conversation with Robert (a zombie) and Lara (a vampire), who are despairing of their conditions, Mikalatos points to the image of God in them as a reason for hope. Robert counters by asserting we are totally depraved and if we are a reflection of God, bearing his image, then God himself would likewise have to be completely depraved. Mr. Mikalatos responds:

“I don’t think so. It might mean that we’ve misunderstood what it means to be sinful. Or that we’ve emphasized it so much that we’ve simply lost sight of the fact that in our deepest, most horrific actions, some piece of us is still outside of that, some part of us is made in God’s image, and that’s not something we can ever completely eradicate.” (p 220)

A little later, Matt relates a story for Robert and Lara about a symphony he and his wife once attended, and how the music filled the concert hall with magnificent beauty, and how it revealed that, as an image-bearer,

“...a man can take what is in his mind and scratch it out on paper, and others can fashion instruments, and still other sacrifice their lives to learn to bring pleasing sounds from these instruments.” (p 222)

And then, later again, while observing other nameless men and women who had attended the symphony, and reflecting on the players of the symphony, and the conductor, that for all of them and us,

“... we need not be captives to our base selves, because by God’s grace there stirs a deeper desire to be like the one who made us.” (p 223)

Now, I believe that we are made in God’s image and appeal unhesitatingly to that fact as a reason to pursue writing as a conscious effort to reflect our Creator through the creation of our own story-making.

But being made in God’s image does not mean that there lies within the sinner a spark or tiny island or a small reservoir by which he wants to be like the one who made him. If this notion of an inherent sensitivity or openness or searching for God is at the bottom of one’s anthropology, I maintain that one’s understanding and explanation of the gospel is going to be affected adversely. If there is somewhere deep in the heart of every person a desire to be like God, then the appeal to that person will be merely to become a follower of Jesus. And that is not what the gospel calls us to do. We cannot call sinners to become followers of Jesus because sinners do not want to be followers. Sinners want to be sinners.

The New Testament appeal to the sinner is this, “Repent and believe.” Jesus saves us from our sins. He frees us from our sins. If there is any hope for change, it does not spawn from a fractured remnant of the image of God that resides in us as a deep, innate stirring that seeks to be like the one who made us. We are called to look away from ourselves and turn wholly to the one who has the power to set us free. By the work of regeneration, the Spirit of God awakens us to our sinfulness, grants us repentance and faith to turn to the only one who can free us from our sin - its penalty, power, and someday, its presence. And that will not happen unless the sinner is faced with the truth of his sinfulness and his complete helplessness to do anything about it.

Regrettably, the gospel call often is misconstrued to be a call to follow Jesus. Mr. Mikalatos himself presents the gospel in this way as one may conclude from videos of his speaking engagements. Such a call assumes that the one called actually has the power to follow Jesus. A call to follow Jesus presumes that if the sinner looks within himself he will realize that following Jesus is the only thing that makes sense.

The response to such a call is disastrous. Instead of the sinner repenting and turning to Christ to be delivered from his sin and thereby enabled to do what he cannot do in himself, he takes courage in his own ability to follow Christ, having a false sense that he has the power to do it, and that all he needs is to give in and let Christ show him how. It does not address the root of his problem, his slavery to sin and inability to do anything but sin. There may be change, but it is not the transformation that the New Testament speaks of. The sinner remains at heart an unchanged sinner.

Thanks to Saltriver (Tyndale House Publishers) for kindly providing a copy of Night of the Living Dead Christian for review on the March 2012 Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.

Matt Mikalatos’s Web Page
List of CSFF Blog Tour Participants

Night of the Living Dead Christian, by Matt Mikalatos. March 2012 CSFF Blog Tour, Day 2

Night of the Living Dead Christian has a mix of reviews on Amazon.
The lowest rated review was a single two-star in which the person simply said he could not get into the book, which happens, of course. I’m sure there are many out there who would find it hard to get into the Harry Potter books, though I suspect they are related to Charles Winchester III.

I read several of the three star reviews. They generally came down on the favorable side, but often just barely. Questionable use of zany humor, an odd presence of werewolves and zombies, and an incoherent flow of the story were some of the reasons proffered for the unenthusiastic ratings. Regardless, there is one thing that they all seemed to get from the story, and that was the need for transformation.

I agree with that. Transformation, and more precisely, transformation that comes only from Christ is the essential message of the book.

But there are some serious problems. In a post for a previous blog tour I argued that a novel is robustly Christian only if it brings the salient truths of the gospel into the story (October 2011 Tour, Day Three – The Bone House. I restricted the scope of those truths to the reformed doctrines of grace defined by the acronym, TULIP (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints). I believe the doctrines of grace are a correct and therefore biblical understanding of what the gospel is. As such, they are the measuring rod for what makes a story Christian. In my estimation, Night of the Living Dead Christian fails to meet that standard.

The failure is at the point of Total Depravity. Total Depravity is simply this, that every person born into this world is a sinner. Each of us are conceived in sin (sinners from the moment of conception) as David testifies, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me”, Psalm 51:5. There is nothing good in us, nothing that seeks after God or his ways. There is nothing in us that enables us to seek him because the spiritual things of God are things the natural man is incapable of understanding, 1 Cor 2:14. It is not that he tries to understand them but for whatever reason, fails to. It is that the things of God are foolishness to him and he does not want to have anything to do with them.

The werewolf Luther Martin, the character that the story centers on, is not like this. We catch this early on, in the werewolf’s own words:

None of use desire to remain wolves. All of us desire to remain wolves. It is the nature of the werewolf to be both man and wolf, and for many years I was satisfied – no, pleased – to be both man and wolf. (p 47)

The imagery (or allegory, if you will) of a werewolf as representing the unconverted man is wrong. Here is the picture: the base, amoral animal nature of the wolf represents the bad of human nature while the intelligent, sane and moral nature of the man represents the good. But the sinner from birth does not have a good side. In fact, a werewolf like the one in our story, who has two conflicting natures at war with each other, can only be true of the Christian, for the Christian alone is the one who has been freed from his sin which seeks to regain mastery over him –

For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do (Gal 5:17).

Luther Martin is no such Christian. Though he grew up in the home of a Lutheran minister, he rejects any claim to be a Christian. He paints some of the integral doctrines of the Christian faith in farcical terms. The reformed doctrine of Unconditional Election is treated this way, as well as the significance of the atonement:

Thus we come to the likewise ridiculous Christian sentiment that he [God] has “chosen” or “elected” us to be in relationship with him, and that he loves us and adopts us as his progeny. It is like saying I have tipped over an anthill and selected certain ones of them to be my children. Not merely that, but I have chosen to sacrifice my human child so their accursed anthill can be spared destruction, and that I am making this handful of ants the heirs of my vast estate – of my house, my car, my food, my clothes, my money. Certainly this comparison does not even begin to scratch the surface of the ridiculous claims of the Christian faith. (p 156)

This underscores that the gospel is foolishness to the sinner, and Luther Martin is such a sinner. Matt Mikalatos’s use of a werewolf to represent the condition of human beings without the grace of God in Christ is simply wrong.

One might counter by saying that any allegory is going to breakdown at some point and that you cannot expect a one-to-one correspondence between the allegorical character and the real-life one which it represents. I agree, but the werewolf was chosen because, in Mr. Mikalatos’s theology, the sinner is not totally depraved, just as the werewolf is not totally animal.

That is a serious flaw in the theology that underlies Mr. Mikalatos’s novel, and it has serious implications. I will address this more in my third post.

Thanks to Saltriver (Tyndale House Publishers) for kindly providing a copy of Night of the Living Dead Christian for review on the March 2012 Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.

Matt Mikalatos’s Web Page
List of CSFF Blog Tour Participants
Night of the Living Dead Christian on Amazon.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Night of the Living Dead Christian, by Matt Mikalatos. March 2012 CSFF Blog Tour, Day 1

Matt Mikalatos, the author and first person protagonist, has assumed the responsibility of neighborhood watch. On the particular evening in which the story opens, Matt comes across Dr. Culberton, the stereotypical mad scientist who, especially at this first encounter, has a remarkable resemblance to Dr. Emmet Brown of Back to the Future. Culberton is assisted by his android, The Hibbs 3000. Together they are in search of werewolves, not to kill, necessarily, but to study and cure if possible. Their mission, in the words of Culberton, “is both a spiritual and a scientific endeavor.”

Though I have never read Imaginary Jesus, what I have heard, especially in the endorsements for that novel, Matt Mikalatos (the real one, that is) is noted for a zany humor, which not only makes the reader laugh but also facilitates the conveyance of the message. Obviously, I am not against humor, I like to laugh as much as the next person, and because of that, I have a fondness for some zany characters that some might raise an eyebrow at – Spongebob Squarepants, for instance. Humor can do many things for a story, the most important of which is to enhance its friendliness. In Night of the Living Dead, it often worked well, but sometimes it got in the way. With such a humorous tone, I think a reader’s tendency is too often to look for the next laugh and miss the message. A rereading of the book might be necessary to scoop up what eludes the first time round. It also poses several general questions about humor’s contribution: Is it natural? Does it underscore? Does it detract? Can it be overbearing? Can it be monotonous?

But it is not the humor that I am concerned about.

Monsters wend their way in and out, representing loosely allegorical situations and phenomena of the way Christianity is perceived and practiced. For me, and it may be because I’m rather thick-headed when it comes to allegory, I did not make what probably should have been obvious connections until the author was kind enough to tie pieces together at the end. The fact that I wasn’t getting it as I was reading was a little frustrating, but I knew that was mostly on me, and I was pretty confident that the author suspected there were some boneheads like me out there, and that he would help us out.

Regardless, it is not the allegory that I am concerned about.

I did not miss the most obvious connection, and that is the werewolf the story settles onto, and more particularly the quest for a cure. The predicament of the werewolf was that he became something that he could not help to become, something vile and violent and offensive, which destroys the most intimate human bond he had – his marriage. To be cured is something the werewolf wants to do, and at the same time, does not want to do. That antinomy serves as a premise that underlies the theology of the novel. The werewolf is the quintessential allegory of the book. The message and theology of the story center on him. If you understand the werewolf, you understand what the novel is trying to say about the gospel.

I think many are of the same mind as Chris Fabry (Almost Heaven), whose endorsing remark succinctly states what the reader of NLDC is faced with. Chris writes:

“Matt Mikalatos gets what the gospel is all about. It’s not about reform or spiritual cosmetology. We’re dead, we’re monstrous, we’re enemies of God. But because of his great mercy, he desires a relationship. He wants us to become like him”

I agree with the part about our condition as dead and enemies of God, but the werewolf of Mr. Mikalatos’s story is not really like that. The second part about what God desires is iffy as well. How so? And what is at the root of the theology of Matt’s book? Those are things I want to get into with tomorrow’s post.

Thanks to Saltriver (Tyndale House Publishers) for kindly providing a copy of Night of the Living Dead Christian for review on the March 2012 Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.

Matt Mikalatos’s Web Page
List of CSFF Blog Tour Participants
Night of the Living Dead Christian on Amazon.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Contract With the Reader? What's the Intrigue About That?

Sally Apokedak, a participant of the Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour, recently published a blog titled, Contract With the Reader in which she challenges others to submit the first 150 words of their story’s opening. The purpose is to allow peers to review and critique the writing from the perspective of whether or not they fulfill the ‘contract with the reader.’ Unfortunately, the blog does not provide a precise definition of what that contract is. Rebecca Luella Miller responds in a comment, "If I’m understanding correctly, the contract is more about tone, character, and conflict."

What is this contract? Ed McBain (an accomplished author whom Stephen King thought highly of, and that’s saying something) wrote an article, Nature of the Beast, in which he delineates what he means by a contract with the reader, and is well worth a look. He states the contract as follows:

I know all the rules of mystery writing, and I promise that I will observe them so long as they provide a novel that will keep you fascinated, intrigued, and entertained. If they get in the way of that basic need, I'll either bend the rules or break them, but I will never cheat the reader. Never.

He goes on to explain how that contract works from the perspective of a mystery writer, that is, what it will take for him to keep the reader “fascinated, intrigued, and entertained.”

It was interesting to read the observations made on Sally’s post in response to the several 150-word entries, and it seems to me that most of them were off point. They questioned POV (too omniscient for some), were preoccupied with whether or not the reader could discern the genre, made judgments about the pace the story would likely take on, worried over bringing the character to life, and so on.

I think it is much ado about nothing. Now, I’m not disparaging the importance of the opening, the initial paragraph(s) of a story. They are extremely important. Really, they’re a matter of life or death, figuratively speaking, of course.

What must they do?

Hook by intrigue. Whatever the purpose the author may be investing in these initial lines for the rest of the story, they must above all intrigue the reader. In contradistinction to the concerns expressed by many over the 150 word entries, intrigue is not dependant on signaling what kind of story you’re getting into, introducing the protagonist or antagonist, promising action and fast pace, jerking the heart strings, and so on. It is simply coherent writing that begins a story from point zero, where absolutely nothing is known, and creating an impression that has enough fascination that will keep the reader going because it’s not boring.

I've grabbed two books within arm’s reach, C. S. Lewis's, Out of the Silent Planet, and J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and in them I find the first 150 words hooking the born reader from the start. They aren’t action-packed scenes; they don’t dazzle with wondrous description, offer any certainty of the importance of the characters, or relate interior monologue. They start out small, as they must, but they pique the interest.

Consider Lewis's Pedestrian. He’s just evaded a drenching by taking shelter under a tree, and is concerned to get to a place where he can stay the night (as evening is coming on) having been denied accommodations in the town he just passed through. The POV is omniscient, the Pedestrian is the protagonist, but we have no clue that that is so, yet. We can't tell if this is going to be a mystery, a fantasy, or a historical novel. Who cares. It's intriguing! It's slow, but again, who cares? The intrigue is the hook and the bridge to what follows.

Rowling's opening starts out with the Dursley's. They’re probably important, but there is no certainty as to what role they will have. All we know is that they are a bunch of fuddy-duddies who, if we knew them, would never expect them to be involved in anything strange or mysterious. Now, that in itself is a strong hint that the story's going to be about the unusual, but you don't know if it is going to be fantasy, science fiction, or simply a series of ordinary events that taken together turn out to be extremely odd. She devotes much to a description of Vernon and Petunia (though we don't know their names yet), which props up their persona as prim and proper, ne'er-do-wrong, snobs. They’re intriguing characters, and you can’t help but keep reading to satisfy that gnawing eagerness to see what’s going on.

Regarding the first 150 words, regardless of what kind of contract you think you have with the reader, the thing you must do is intrigue him with the first sentence or two, and build on it.

Here's Lewis's first sentence:

The last drops of the thundershower had hardly ceased falling when the Pedestrian stuffed his map into his pocket, settled his pack more comfortably on his tired shoulders, and stepped out from the shelter of a large chestnut-tree into the middle of the road.

No power-packed action or breathtaking description. Simple, picturesque, and curious.

Here’s Rowling’s first sentence:

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

My reaction: a smile and the thought, Whoa, this ought to be good.

Here are more examples where I think intrigue is at the heart of the opening lines. Some give a strong sense of what the genre is. Only two give it with any certainty.

Janner Igiby lay trembling in his bed with his eyes shut tight, listening to the dreadful sound of the Black Carriage rattling along in the moonlight.
--Adam Peterson, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness.

From a snug in the corner of the Museum Tavern, Douglas Flinders-Petrie dipped a sop of bread into the gravy of his steak and kidney pudding and watched the entrance to the British Museum across the street.
--Stephen R. Lawhead, The Bone House.

It was nearing midnight and the Prime Minister was sitting alone in his office, reading a long memo that was slipping through his brain without leaving the slightest trace of meaning behind.
--J. K. Rowing, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.
--J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring.

Most everyone in Utah remembers 1896 as the year the territory became a state. But in Adenville it was celebrated by all the kids in town and by Papa and Mamma as the time of the The Great Brain’s reformation.
--John D. Fitzgerald, The Great Brain.

This is the story of an idea and how it played about in the minds of a number of intelligent peoples.
--H. G. Wells, Star Begotten.

Keryn Wills was in the shower when she figured out how to kill Josh Trenton.
--Randall Ingermanson, Double Vision.

“On a post. In a pond.”
Delaney said the words aloud, not because anyone could hear him but because the words needed saying.
--George Bryan Polivka, Blaggard’s Moon.

The year 1866 was marked by a series of remarkable incidents, and a mysterious phenomenon that excited people everywhere.
--Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin.
---A. A. Milne, The Complete Tales of Winnie the Pooh.

The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms.
---Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows.