Light And Darkness

Years ago when I was teaching, we took our eighth graders on a three-day science field trip to Catalina Island. One of the activities was to experience a sight deprivation maze. It’s hard to imagine a place as dark as that cramped labyrinth was.

From that experience I can tell you confidently, darkness is not beautiful. In fact, you can’t see the darkness. You simply can’t see anything. No shades or shapes, not even movement. Your eyes can’t register a single thing because of the absence of light.

Light, on the other hand, is exceedingly beautiful in its many manifestations. I thought of this again on Sunday as I was driving to church. Sunlight streamed through parted clouds, lining them with gold. Not silver, like the cliche. But it was so brilliant, I suppose you might say it was sort of silvery-gold.

And just the day before, as the sun was about to break above the horizon, its light painted a scattering of woolly clouds with pink, all but their outer gray edges. That’s nothing to the sunsets we get in the fall. Then there is the full moon climbing through the early night, or the crescent moon lingering with the last stars in the early dawn.

Light in its many forms is beautiful. Well, maybe not all artificial light can be said to be beautiful, but natural light does dramatic things. Starlight twinkles, sunlight refracts, candlelight glows, and firelight dances.

Any wonder then, that Scripture says Jesus is the Light of the world?

Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life
– John 8:12

Yet, most likely, because of the little bit of physical description we have of Jesus, we don’t think of Him as beautiful. Isaiah 53:2b says,

He has no stately form or majesty
That we should look upon Him,
Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him.

But then this from Psalm 27:

One thing I have asked from the LORD, that I shall seek:
That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
To behold the beauty of the LORD
And to meditate in His temple. (v. 4 – emphasis mine)

This morning I was listening to Awaken the Dawn, an album by Keith & Kristyn Getty. One song, “What Grace Is Mine” opens with these words:

What grace is mine that He who dwells in endless light
Called through the night to find my distant soul

The phrase “endless light” grabbed me. Not only does God dwell in endless light, He is endless light. It speaks to God’s eternal nature, but it also promises unlimited beauty. And what a contrast to the “night” through which He calls – the darkness of sin that blanks out the light. No wonder He needs to call me. My condition prohibits me from seeing even endless light. Except, He tore the veil.

All fear can flee for death’s dark night is overcome
My Saviour lives and reigns forevermore

Published in: on January 31, 2011 at 7:45 pm  Comments (3)  
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Fantasy Friday – More Thoughts On Violence

Day two of the recent CSFF Blog Tour, I dived into a discussion of violence in Christian fantasy. I made the case for the appropriateness of violence against evil, and therefore the appropriateness of violence in fantasy, since these are stories of good versus evil.

The problem is, those who are evil can be redeemed. Can’t they? Can’t we? I mean, if we truly believe that Mankind’s nature is wicked, not good, yet here the Christian stands, reconciled to God, not by what we do, but by what He did, shouldn’t our evil characters also have the chance to be redeemed?

Yes. Or no. Maybe both.

I know, I know, that’s not helpful. But here’s what I’m thinking. God offers forgiveness through His Son and some accept His mercy by repenting and believing on His name. Can Christian fantasy depict such a response to evil? Forgiveness and mercy instead of violence?

But that’s not the whole picture because not every person bows the knee to God when presented with the claims of Christ on his life. That person who rejects Jesus will one day face judgment. Violent judgment. To whitewash this outcome seems to me to play into the hands of false teachers who strip God of His role as the righteous Judge who will Himself cast rebels into a place of darkness and of gnashing teeth, of torment and burning fire.

Then there is Satan himself and his forces of evil — who apparently are locked into their rebellion. I don’t know how this works, but God has already spoken judgment against them. They just haven’t experienced it yet. These are the ones Ephesians 6:12 tells us we are fighting:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.

I tend to think we Christians don’t get that, at least in Western culture. We tend to fight people who have sinful life styles and our government for passing laws that allow it. But in so doing, are we actually fighting the spiritual forces of wickedness?

Our armor is composed of truth, righteousness, the gospel, and salvation. Our shield is faith, and our weapons are the Word of God and prayer.

And then we do battle.

In fantasy, how is this battle depicted? Might it not be through the extended metaphor of physical battle?

Consequently, I see a definite place for violence in Christian fantasy. It might serve as a judgment on evil people or as a battle against the supernatural forces of evil. But there is one more use of violence I think might be appropriate.

Evil employs violence without cause. A mugger pistol-whips a victim after stealing her purse. A demon-possessed boy throws himself into the fire.

Sometimes a writer may show evil by showing violence. In that instance it should be heinous, revolting, unjust. Those are not pretty scenes, but they might be necessary.

Or are they? What do you think?

CSFF Tour Wrap – Dragons Of The Valley

The blog tour for Donita Paul’s Dragons of the Valley (WaterBrook) came to an end yesterday, and like others that are this fun, I’m sad to see it end. We had perhaps the most creative blog posts of all time as part of this tour.

Some of the highlights included a guest post by our author at Sarah Sawyer‘s site, a hillarious two day “interview” with Lady Peg, one of the characters in the book over at Gillian Adams‘ site, and a succinct review by Katy Hart‘s twelve-year-old sister. Another don’t-miss post is Bruce Hennigan‘s look at the spiritual themes woven in the story. So many.

The final order of business is to find the top tour blogger for this CSFF feature. The participants that are eligible posted all three days. And they are

Published in: on January 27, 2011 at 7:17 pm  Comments Off on CSFF Tour Wrap – Dragons Of The Valley  

CSFF Blog Tour – Dragons of the Valley, Day 3

What, you may ask, does “Dragon Bloggin’” have to do with the latest CSFF Tour feature, Dragons of the Valley? Besides the word “dragon,” both are creations of Donita Paul, the latter her latest novel and the former her fantasy blog. While I wanted to draw your attention to this fine blog where Donita posts her tour articles whenever she participates in CSFF (as she did this week), my intent today is to give you my review of Dragons of the Valley.

The Story. This second volume in the Chiril Chronicles begins a week after the events at the end of The Vanishing Sculptor. Same primary characters, same immediate threat, different opponent.

Strengths. The Characters. Donita has outdone herself in this one. First, she created a truly formidable foe for her cast of heroes to bring down. The Grawl was fearsome and believable. To be honest, he reminded me of a very evil Rigador (I think I have that name right), the meech dragon in the DragonKeeper books.

But true to form, Donita also brought some of the secondary characters front and center so that they nearly upstaged the primaries. Lady Peg played a critical, and hilarious role. Wizard Fenworth was at his best, and we met a delightful kimen named Hollee who made everything more fun.

Then there was a new minor dragon, Rayn. This little chameleon dragon was a jack of all trades and no slouch when it came to mastering them. He started out as such a needy little stray, my heart went out to him before I realized he would be the most talented of all the minors.

Themes. Donita’s stories are rich with spiritual truth. The Chiril Chronicles are actually evangelistic, mapping the way in which a people who forgot God learn to know Him. But there are other significant threads—the importance of following God even when it takes you out of your comfort zone, of accepting and loving those who are different than we, of rejoicing in the beauty of the world God has made. Donita even shows a little of her former teacher self and makes a point (humorously) about not ending sentences with prepositions. 😉

Writing style. This is where Donita puts her stamp on the book. She uses an abundance of light-hearted humor alongside an adventure quest. It is a story of good versus evil, with joy.

Fred Warren, one of our blog participants (and an author in his own right), came up with the perfect term to describe Donita’s stories—cozy fantasies. Nothing could be more apropos.

It seems Donita’s writing is a mirror of her, as you might expect. In a fun interview, another of our blog participants, Noah Arsenault, asked Donita to choose a song that would describe her books. Her answer? “Amazing Grace sung to the tune of Gilligan’s Island.”

What a classic answer. Front and center is Truth, God-honoring Truth, but it’s delivered with a healthy dose of humor.

Weakness. It hardly seems important, (and I know this sounds nuts) but the plot could be stronger. It hardly seems important because Donita’s stories are not the kind that induce one adrenaline rush after another. Going in, we can pretty much guarantee that the good guys—all of them—will win, with little blood shed.

This softening of fright and violence is a motif of the “cozy fantasy.” But at the same time, someone who wants an unpredictable story with a huge clash at the climax will probably be a little disappointed.

Yes, the victories are easy, the wounds healed quickly, a lot of the hitting and hacking told, not shown. But that’s part of what makes the stories perfect for all ages, as the front cover declares.

What could make the plot better? I think more direct confrontation with The Grawl, where he is creating roadblocks to keep Tipper and company from their goal of protecting the statues. But even so, there is plenty of plot to keep the pages turning

Recommendation. This is a fun book that families can read together. A must read for the fans of the cozy fantasy.

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

CSFF Blog Tour – Dragons of the Valley, Day 2

The tour for Donita Paul’s Dragons of the Valley continues. Before I get into the topic I want to discuss in conjunction with this book, I have some posts to recommend from other participants. First, Bruce Hennigan has the best article about the spiritual impact of the book. It falls into the “don’t miss” category.

Second, Sarah Sawyer follows her excellent first day post with a couple polls about the characters. Readers of the book should be sure to weigh in on these.

But best of all has to be Gillian Adams‘ radio interview with one of the tour participants’ favorite characters, Lady Peg. This is really hilarious, especially if you’ve read either The Vanishing Sculptor or Dragons of the Valley.

On to the topic of the day: violence in fantasy, in particular violence in Christian fantasy.

From time to time the question of violence comes up in connection with Christian fiction, but no one gives a good answer why we tolerate it.

When I first started writing The Lore of Efrathah, I came smack against the question of violence in my writing almost at once. I, who had been raised by pacifist parents, was now writing a story filled with physical conflicts. How could I justify such a thing?

Before I answer this question, let me connect my own experience to the book we are touring. All of Donita’s fantasies to this point — the DragonKeeper series and the two books in the Chiril Chronicles — have been “light fantasy.” One person on the tour called them epic fantasy, but I think it’s not quite that. The books are filled with humor and easy victories, some of them bloodless.

As the series have progressed, Donita, by her own admission and her son’s coaching, has worked on her fight scenes. And I thought those scenes were more realistic in Dragons of the Valley, which of course means, not as light and fun because people are injured and dying.

Still, Donita has a way of letting the reader know of the danger without dragging us through the blood. It’s one of the qualities, I think, that her fans may look for in her books. It’s what makes them appropriate for young readers as well as older fantasy fans.

And yet, violence happens. Not in the graphic way it does in The Lore of Efrathah, however.

Is it OK to depict graphic violence in Christian fantasy, or must all Christian writers (must I) take Donita’s approach?

Back to my own experience, I’ve come to believe that my dear aunt who gave me the encouragement to write early on, stopped reading my second book because of the violence. She even asked me once how I learned to write fight scenes.

I don’t know if I ever adequately explained this to her (she passed away last year), but here’s how I see the place of violence in Christian fantasy. As in all fantasy, the struggle between good and evil is the defining element. But for the Christian “good” and “evil” are often tropes for the spiritual struggle, the battle we wage in our hearts and the one being fought in the heavenlies.

In Donita’s stories, for example, The Grawl is not a real “person” but an imaginative creature Donita has invented — an evil creature to be sure. Is he “spiritual” or is he “human gone bad”? The author gets to decide.

I suggest that if he is “spiritual,” meaning that he is representative of the spiritual realm, killing him would be more than the right thing to do (not saying that’s what happened, mind you. No spoilers here, just hypothesizing).

Scripture uses a lot of “warfare” language for the Christian, so depicting warfare necessitates violence. But the Bible also says we don’t war against flesh and blood but against the spiritual.

I’m out of time but may say more about this later. For now, go read what others on the tour are saying. Enjoy.

CSFF Blog Tour – Dragons of the Valley, Day 1

The CSFF Blog Tour is making up ground we lost last October. Consequently we have two tours here in the month of January — this one for Donita Paul, the author who helped us get started more than four years ago, and her for-all-ages fantasy, Dragons of the Valley.

Astute observers will note that the book in the picture to the left, while containing a dragon, is not Dragons of the Valley. This is intentional. While I certainly plan to talk about our featured book in the next few days, I can’t pass up the opportunity to point fans of fantasy to Donita’s web site.

Besides the Adventure Contest, a writing event for children, Donita is holding a Creative Cakes Contest in which you send her cake. No, just kidding. You send her pictures of the dragon cake you make.

These two events are promoting Donita’s children’s books. Yes, you read that correctly. Children’s books, as in picture books. You can learn more at her web site. As writers can about her Monday chats discussing The Art and Craft of Writing Fiction by Jeff Gerke.

There’s more, so much more — a list of resources, an art gallery, recipes, games, links to her blogs, free downloads, and of course the Zazzle shop where you can buy cool dragon items like tee shirts and mugs.

For writers, I say take a look at someone who is getting the most out of her web site. For fans, I say take a look at her web site to see how you can maximize the fun of the books you love. For those who have yet to read a Donita Paul book, I say, check out what the other participants of the tour are saying about Dragons of the Valley, then go buy a copy and get in on the enjoyment. 😀

Here are the other tour participants:

Published in: on January 24, 2011 at 2:03 pm  Comments (6)  
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Look, Mom, No Hands

Kids love the spotlight. They run, jump, turn somersaults, dive into the pool, what have you, then rush back to the adults close by. “Did you see me, did you see?” they ask.

Inevitably their antics get braver and bolder. When I was growing up, one such bit of tomfoolery was to walk up the stairs on the piece of each step outside the railing.

I remember, too, learning to ride a bike. For some time I had training wheels, but eventually those came off, and I was on my own. The initial fear I felt when the safety wheels were no longer in place soon gave way to confidence.

And one day there came a time when I could balance well enough that I could take my hands off the handlebars.

“Look, Mom, no hands.”

For some reason, Mom wasn’t as thrilled as I was over this new development. She knew what I didn’t — that even a small pebble in the road could upset the balance I enjoyed, and consequently upset the bike, and me along with it.

I suffered a bike accident or two in my day. One was on gravel and tore up my elbow and knee. Another gave me a concussion and landed me in the doctor’s office (so they told me).

Funny thing, I wasn’t so quick to relinquish the handlebars any more. In fact, I was more inclined to grip tight. When I was ignorant of the dangers, I showed off my perceived independence from the mechanism that kept me moving forward. But when I learned of them, through the hard knocks of accidents, I began to cling tight.

So it is in our spiritual lives, I think. In our spiritual immaturity we may think we can manage on our own. Depend on God … for everything? Why would I do that? He’s given me a brain. Doesn’t He expect me to use it?

Well, yes, but He also delights in being involved with His children, in giving and loving beyond our expectations. And He knows our weaknesses. He knows what tares can do to wheat.

He warns us and woos us and reaches out His hands, inviting us to take hold and hang on, to cling and never let go. And we do. For a time. But then we start feeling comfortable and self-assured. I can do this, we think, and loosen our grip, maybe even let go, just for a second. “Look, Dad, I’m on my own.”

It’s a sure recipe for disaster, except for God’s sustaining love.

The steps of a man are established by the LORD,
And He delights in his way.
When he falls, he will not be hurled headlong,
Because the LORD is the One who holds his hand.
– Ps 37:23-24

I might not cling to Him as He wants me to, I might be prone to wander. But God isn’t show-boating or feeling the need for independence. He’s looking after His children, even we who need to learn our lessons the hard way.

Published in: on January 21, 2011 at 7:31 pm  Comments (2)  
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How Does Everyone Else Get Through?

An email exchange today with a writer friend made me wonder again, how do people without Christ get through a single day?

The thing is, our lives are remarkably the same. We have good days and better days. We do the mundane and we celebrate the extraordinary. Laundry and milestone birthdays.

And we also suffer in much the same way. Christians, like everyone else, get cancer, lose their jobs, face disappointment in their marriages, struggle to raise their kids. And there’s more laundry, or snow to shovel, grass to mow, dishes to load or unload from the dishwasher.

The difference, however, is that we don’t do any of it alone:

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; And through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, Nor will the flame burn you … Do not fear, for I am with you
– Isa 43:2, 5a [emphasis mine]

Over and over God reminded His chosen people of His presence with them.

Be strong and courageous; do not fear or tremble at them, for the LORD your God is the One who goes with you. He will not fail you or forsake you.

The LORD is the One who goes ahead of you. He will be with you. He will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.
– Deut. 31:6, 8 [emphasis mine]

If His presence was sure for them, how much more so is it for believers today since we have the Holy Spirit?

If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him.
– John 14:23 [emphasis mine]

Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?
– I Cor 3:16 [emphasis mine]

Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”
– Gal 4:6 [emphasis mine]

Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you.
– 2 Tim 1:14 [emphasis mine]

By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.
– I John 4:13 [emphasis mine]

“Never alone.” It’s a theme I’ve seen in a number of Christian fantasies, in particular Wayne Batson‘s first series, The Door Within trilogy. When I read these, a chord in my heart resonates with the truth of God with us and in us.

It’s enough to make me want to write of His glory, sing of His greatness, fall on my face and worship.

Published in: on January 20, 2011 at 7:14 pm  Comments (3)  
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I’m On Elihu’s Side

Well, there aren’t really sides, per se. I’m referring to the exchange between the patriarch Job and the men who gathered to comfort him.

You might recall, there was initially some give and take between Job and three men who basically were counseling him to repent of whatever wickedness had brought on his terrible suffering. Then, and only then, God would restore his fortunes, they said. Job countered that he hadn’t done anything to cause his suffering. It was God’s doing.

At this point, I’m siding with Job. He sees God as independent, doing whatever He wills. His treatment of men is determined by His own will. In contrast, the friends see God as locked into reacting to whatever Man does — God’s treatment of men is determined by men.

Enter Elihu, a younger man than the three who first spoke to Job. In the past when I read what Elihu said, I was just confused. I couldn’t really figure out whether he was right in what he said, but I realize now that my reaction to him stemmed from my belief about Job.

Job, after all, is one of the heroes of the faith. The book of James uses him as an example of patience. What’s more, God used Job as an example of righteousness when He pointed him out to Satan. Job, then, is one of the good guys. Maybe he was the Best Guy, apart from Christ, who ever lived.

But not so long ago, it dawned on me that at the end of the book of Job, the hero was on his face, repenting of his sin. So somewhere between Job 2:10 (“in all this Job did not sin with his lips”) and 42:6 (“I repent in dust and ashes”), he did in fact sin.

I began to look at what Job said in a different light, and inevitably, as I saw Job more clearly, I began to understand what Elihu was saying.

I don’t have this down in a clear, systematic way, but here are the points I believe he was making.

1. God makes Himself known in a variety of ways. [Therefore men are without excuse].

2. God will not act wickedly. [Though Job is accusing Him of just that by saying He’s punishing him unjustly.]

3. God is sovereign, just, omniscient, and righteous.

4. Consequently, Job or the friends should have said, “Teach me what I do not see.”

5. Instead Job said, “My righteousness is more than God’s.” He’s punishing me when I did no wrong. [I found it startling to see that Job was taking the same position as some of the emergent thinkers like Mike Morrell, he of the “Am I nicer than God?” article.]

6. Job is teetering toward wickedness.

“Beware that wrath does not entice you to scoffing;
And do not let the greatness of the ransom [what he’d lost] turn you aside” (Job 37:18)

7. God is greater than we can know.

Enter God.

One of the reasons I never “got” Elihu before was because God never made any comment about him. He talked to Job and about the three men who spoke first, but never mentioned Elihu.

Did He need to? Perhaps His presence alone was validation of what Elihu said. I mean finally, after all the give and take, the defensive justifications and false accusations, someone speaks what is true about God. Then, and only then, did He show Himself. I think that might be corroboration enough that Elihu had it right.

Published in: on January 19, 2011 at 7:05 pm  Comments (3)  
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What’s Important?

It’s easy to get inundated with activity. Maybe it’s a part of the Western culture or maybe it’s always been this way, but it seems as if there is always more to do than time to do it.

I felt that way when I was a teacher. If nothing else, there were always papers to grade, and I got used to carry a satchel and a red pen whenever I thought I might have a few “spare” moments … because there really weren’t any such things.

As a writer, little has changed. I still have laundry and dishes and the other household tasks, but the structured teaching day has been replaced by a less structured potpourri of activity: answering email, contacting PR representatives about blog tours, editing a chapter in my latest novel, responding to contacts on Facebook, working on the new editing project, writing a blog post, researching agents, hammering out another draft of a query letter, and on and on. Now I carry a blog tour book with me for those “spare” moments.

The day never ends with me crossing off the last item on my to do list. The best I seem to be able to manage is to tackle a few “must do” assignments. The problem is, what do I place in that “must do” category?

Some of these tasks are ones I don’t enjoy, others are why I wanted to be a writer. My first choice, quite obviously, would be to put the fun ones (actually writing) first. The problem with that approach is that I’d never get to the unpleasant but necessary ones.

I know some people who reverse the process — get the unpleasant out of the way first. The problem here is, those are recurrent, and it’s quite possible to never get to the fun ones. I can do all the work to build a platform and network with people in the writing business and promote my genre of choice (fantasy, in case anyone visiting might be unclear about that 😉 ) — and never write.

So today I took a little time to catch up on some of the blogs I try to follow (love Google Reader), and came across a post by PR pro Rebeca Seitz, she of last year’s Mount Hermon Christian Writer’s Conference seminars (funny co-incidence that we have the same blog template, don’t you think?)

In Rebeca’s post, she put work into perspective — the privilege of connecting. After all, I write to connect, just as I once taught to connect or coached to connect. The great thing about writing is that I’m able to determine how meaningful that connection will be.

For me it has to start with prayer. First I must connect with God, then allow Him to show me how to proceed from there.

In His economy, though, nothing is wasted. No thirty-second chat on Facebook, no hour-long agent search. Not even throwing in a load of laundry.

The problem isn’t really in deciding what is most important or most necessary. It’s in perspective — viewing the work God gives me as something I can do for His glory. No matter how mundane or separated from “the fun stuff.”

And by the way, if you’re wondering, for me blogging is part of the fun stuff! 😀

Published in: on January 18, 2011 at 6:58 pm  Comments (2)  
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