Last Sunday, the 3rd Sunday of Advent, I preached a sermon I called “A Symposium on Joy” which was really just a series of loosely connected quotations. If you want the sermon, you’ll have to go listen to the podcast. Here are the quotations, without comment.
The joy which the Spirit brings to our lives lifts us above circumstances. Joy can be ours, even in the midst of the most trying situations. —Billy Graham
this joy that I have, the world didn’t give it to me,
this joy that I have, the world didn’t give it to me,
this joy that I have, the world didn’t give it to me,
the world didn’t give it, and the world can’t take it away. —Contemporary African American Lyric
Yes, a few things in life are absolutely tragic, no question about it. First among them, a joyless Christian —Chuck Swindoll
We could never learn to be brave and patient if there were only joy in the world. —Helen Keller
I’m out of joy. Stop at Albertsons and get me some. —Kim Greening
Surprised by joy—impatient as the wind. —William Wordsworth
Weeping may tarry for the night,
But joy comes in the morning. —King David of Israel
Grief can take care of itself, but to get the full value of a joy you must have somebody to divide it with. —Mark Twain
preserve a quiet conscience, and you will always have joy —Thomas a’Kempis
the time of preparation for the Lord’s Supper will be filled with brotherly admonition and encouragement, with prayers, with fear, and with joy. —Dietrich Bonhoeffer
You give me joy that’s unspeakable; and I like it —Peter Furler
Joy is the serious business of heaven. —C.S. Lewis
we must preach for joy in the glory of God if we would produce true grief over falling short of the glory of God. —John Piper
These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. —Jesus
I gave the bad guy in The Deep Cove Lineage, Dr. Sleeth, more than a lab. I gave him an entire underground complex fully funded out of the covert operations of the United States. Yeah, I was having fun with that. His job was to create a monster that could be useful in warfare, that could be unleashed behind enemy lines and turned lose, so to speak.
Of course he succeeded, because that is how the Deep Cove monster came to be.
The last two weeks I’ve been working on the next installment (I hope to have it out by Thanksgiving) and it is set almost entirely in the underground complex named DECOSOL, which is an acronym for Deep Cove Special Operations Laboratory. I gave it a long acronym name because when I was in Port Orchard I was surrounded by government employees and sailors in the Navy, and those people use acronyms like you wouldn’t believe. I mean, everything is an acronym. Whenever they talked it was like a whole other language. So, I made this one up as a tip of my hat to them.
Continuity has been an issue with this story, now the fifth one in the series, but the biggest problem has been the actual layout of the compound. In The Deep Cove Lineage I mostly described individual rooms–the lagoon where the monster was kept–the cafeteria–private quarters–administrative areas–you know, the places things happened. What I didn’t do was work on a unified map of the complex. Shame on me, because now the plot requires an almost systematic walk-through of the facility, and I need to describe where the characters are, where they are going, and how they get there.
I am not much of an artist, but in my mind I need to know where things are because those things matter when telling a story. I recently read a novel that had people on a spaceship and, although the book was good, I never could get a mental map of where they were on the spaceship and what was happening where. I don’t want my readers to have the same problem.
I don’t think sharing the map gives too much away, and you probably can’t read my handwriting anyway. The bottom of the map where it says “Above/Below” is the entry place. I really liked that piece in the story. You’ll have to buy it to find out why. From there, on one side of the compound is the lagoon, which I sometimes call the lair, and on the extreme other side (top left) are the private quarters for the bad guy Dr. Sleeth. I had to shrink them down a bit because I ran out of paper. In between those two areas is essentially an H-shaped facility. Again, I was thinking about government buildings here. One hallway is filled labs that heads into the cafeteria. A hallway joins that large room to another large room, what I call the workroom. To the right of the workroom is a hallway that runs parallel to the labs, but it has living quarters for the scientists. Above the workroom, along a zigzag hallway is Dr. Sleeth’s bedroom, living room, and private laboratory. There is lots of cool stuff inside his private lab.
The blue ink line represents the water line. Everything to the right of that line is actually built under the lake. And yeah, that matters.
I share all of this just to say that when writing it is sometimes helpful to draw it out, or diagram it, even if the actual picture or image never makes it into the text itself. This kind of grunt work is a part of the background story, and that is what I think gives even far-flung fiction like government engineered lake monsters a feeling of reality. I am reminded of a story I once heard about C. S. Lewis. Apparently he made the first map of Narnia when he was about seven years old. When he was an adult, he could write about Narnia as an adult with clarity, even though Lewis still had some major continuity problems, but that is a topic for a different blog.
I resisted the temptation to put a “You Are Here” sticker on the map. I am proud of myself.
If you’re interested in reading the first four stories, head over to my Amazon author page (click here) and pick them up. Most of them are only 99 cents. The first two, Deep Cove and Deep Cove: The Party Crasher are pretty short, but The Deep Cove Lineage and The Deep Cove Investigation are both good sized short stories, about 12,000 words each. Those last two are also more sci-fish than the first ones, which are more horror/monsterish . If you read Lineage and Investigation, you have the essence of the story.
This post was originally scheduled for next Monday. However, some exciting things (like my new novel’s release) are taking precedence on Monday, so instead of bumping this one back further I decided to push it up to today. I hope you will not mind.
The problem with fantasy, like the problem with science fiction, really, is that defining the genre is so blasted difficult. Then there is the problem that these fantasy books often come in long series. This makes it exceedingly difficult because a series can be over-the-top great but within the series there is not a single stellar book that would be the best. I hope that makes sense to you, because it makes sense to me but I’m not sure it makes sense. And yes, I realize the ridiculousness of that sentence, it accentuates my problem.
Okay, now having said that, here are my top three fantasy books. As you read, please keep in mind these are not in any particular order.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Book Five of the Chronicles of Narnia), C. S. Lewis
I know that I will get push back on this one. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is everybody’s favorite. I love it too, but there is something about Dawn Treader that is marvelous. I don’t know if it is the rag tag crew, their odd discoveries, dragons, the speculation about heaven or that it is a tribute to The Odyssey but there is something about this book that makes it my favorite in the set. Plus, it has one of the greatest first lines ever: “There once was a boy called Eustace Clarence Srubb, and he almost deserved it.”
The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
If you didn’t like my first pick, I know you’ll not like this one. The world is filled with Lord of the Rings aficionados, including some of my very best friends, but for my money The Hobbit is a better book than any of those three. Here are my reasons. One, it is shorter. The eventual finished product was longer than the first release, I grant that. This demonstrates Tolkien’s perfectionist tendencies. Shorter is better because it skips all that blasted elfin poetry. Second, its more playful. The Hobbit is really just a treasure quest tale. Compare Gandalf in The Hobbit with Gandalf in LOTR. He is far funnier and whimsical in The Hobbit. Third, LOTR is slightly predictable. You can see it all coming. The Hobbit, not so much. These three differences is why I think The Hobbit movies are failing, they are trying to reduplicate LOTR but The Hobbit is a completely different kind of tale.
The Singer Trilogy, Calvin Miller
I will not have a “Christian Fiction” book category in these lists. The main reason is my strong conviction that Christian literature doesn’t exist. There is only literature. Christian writers should strive to create works of art that stand on their own merit as they reflect a biblical worldview. The Singer Trilogy (originally released as three small books, The Singer, The Song, and The Finale) does that. It is outstanding artwork and poetry that casts Christ as a troubadour singing an eternal song. Calvin Miller was a teacher and hero of mine, but that is not why this book is on my list. It is on my list because it is a great work. That it is biblical is a bonus.
So these are my three fantasy book favorites. What are yours? What do you think of mine? I’d love to know.
Evangelical Culture and the Rise of Anti-Intellectualism
The willingness to allow novices in vital positions such as teaching has largely been the result of the anti-intellectual bias which set up household in the church beginning in the 1870’s. The slide toward anti-intellectualism has manifested itself in several ways. First, it has had a detrimental effect on the ability of evangelicals to look clearly and reflectively at the world around us. In fact, it has nearly destroyed the desire of evangelicals to engage in responsible intellectual discussion with the secular world—engaging it on its own terms. This desire appears to have been virtually eradicated among the varied fundamentalist movements within American evangelicalism. All this has evolved to the bewilderment of devout Christian scholars (including Jamie and I) whose commitment to Christian orthodoxy is strong, but find the anti-intellectual modus operandi among conservative evangelicals to be problematic for the health of the church.
This movement is in stark contrast to Paul’s willingness to engage the world on its own terms in the first century, Origen’s engagement with the secular polemics of Celsus in the third century (248 C.E.), and Augustine’s in the fifth century. In fact, Origen wrote eight such books, taking on the pagan philosopher on an intellectually respectable playing field, demonstrating the reasonable nature of faith. In the modern church, many of those who attempt to do this have been relegated to the margins of modern evangelicalism to the point where the most reflective among us keep their mouths closed while being expected to continue writing their tithe checks.
There is some irony in this process. The push toward anti-intellectualism in many churches has been legitimated largely because American universities (secular universities and even many within the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities) have been branded as “too secular” to be trusted with our young people. The irony lies in the fact that this has only served to perpetuate the secularization of the academy and to make Christian scholars more marginalized. If the academy is off limits to the devout believer, what will become of the academy? What would we expect? The world of academe will continue down the path of secularization if believers are encouraged to abandon the field. Is that what we do? Do we really desire to discourage believers from engaging certain groups of people with the gospel, only to complain later about how secular they are?
All in all, this trend has increased the acrimony between Christianity and the life of the mind and made the conservative evangelical environment less accepting of Christian intellectuals as well. Many academics, including me, have been shouted to the margins of a church culture that rules out reflection, dialogue, and questioning as if they were sure pathways to theological liberalism. Since higher education promotes these habits associated with the life of the mind, to be highly educated is often seen as synonymous with “liberal,” and liberal is viewed as unmitigated evil. The noisy reactions of an anti-intellectual crowd have made it much more difficult to hear the softer, more reasoned voices of Dietrich Bonhoeffer , C.S. Lewis, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Alvin Plantinga, John Polkinhorne, and Gerd Theissen.
I wonder if even the great evangelist Jonathan Edwards, who believed in a great partnership between the Christian faith and the life of the mind, would be welcome in most modern American evangelical congregations.
As a result, when modern evangelicals are in need of their own intellectual resources to meet the challenges posed by modernity, secularism, postmodernism, or other faith traditions, as Noll says, they find that “the cupboard is nearly bare.” Why is it so bare? This war on expertise has created a church culture in which everyone with common sense is an expert. Well, in a setting where everyone is a so-called “expert,” the worst thing one can be is a true expert.
Back to the Bible Study Class
The several group members who began our discussion suggested that we should rely on a so called common-sense tack (often deceptively referred to as “plain” or “normal”) sought by many anti-intellectual approaches, which suggest that meaning in the scriptures is always readily apparent without disciplined study. The assumption here is that the Bible is written in common sense language, and anyone with a modicum of common sense will be able to comprehend its meaning. However, this “anyone with common sense should know” approach neglects the reality that our current definition of what is common sensical is a twenty-first century (it really began in the nineteenth century), Western definition. Applying this definition to a first century, Mediterranean text will hardly yield meaning which is self-evident. The confusion caused by this has led, even among churches employing a literalist approach to the scriptures, to studies in which various members sit and discuss what a passage means to them. This often results in a meaning that is chimerical at best, having little relation to the author’s intent.
What Should We Do?
1) The church must reclaim its place in Biblical and theological education. There was a time when solid doctrinal education was available at the local church. Those days are now behind us. At one time, Sunday morning Bible study consisted of expository journeys in the scriptures, while Sunday evenings offered training in topically based doctrinal studies. Those have been abandoned in favor of a de-skilled curriculum. The church has all but abandoned Biblical/theological education to the seminaries.
2) The church must re-evaluate the theological nature of its worship. As a result of our decline in Biblical and theological literacy, our worship has devolved into a ritual where we express our affection for God rather than reasoned consideration of God’s character. Thus, worship has focused on emotional catharsis rather than the dependable work of the one true God. Can this be emotional at times? Absolutely. However, our emotional response to God’s work must not take the focus away from the character of God himself. This more theologically sophisticated worship will not occur again until the church reclaims its intention to think about God in a more disciplined way.
3) The church needs intellectually prepared leaders. In order to accomplish the two previous prescriptions, the church must move toward placing leaders in key positions of teaching and worship who possess the intellectual and spiritual preparation to think about these priorities in more nuanced and mature ways. We will never have a church who thinks clearly about the scriptures until we have teachers who have done the thinking beforehand as well. We will never have more theologically informed worship until we have worship leaders who are more intentional regarding the theology behind the worship they lead.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Touchstone, 1995.
C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man: How Education Develops Man’s Sense of Morality. New York: Macmillan, 1947.
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason within the Bounds of Religion. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976.
Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977.
John Polkinghorne, Faith, Science, and Understanding. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
Gerd Theissen, Biblical Faith: An Evolutionary Approach. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985, and Gerd Theissen, A Critical Faith: A Case for Religion. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979.
Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.
Charles Pierce. Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free. New York: Anchor Books, 2010.