Black Panther and Living in Perspectives

I saw Black Panther about a week and a half ago, so this review is a long time coming. I was almost going to let it slide, but my brother has been inspiring in the last few days, so I finally mustered my limited after-school energy to put into words what I got out of the movie.

Especially because what I got out of it was, I think, a lesson worth learning.

Before I get into the meat, it’s worth noting that while this is certainly a good Marvel movie, and a successful Marvel movie. It’s still a Marvel movie. The action varies between meh and pretty alright, witty banter does a good job of entertaining while occasionally undercutting the gravity of the scene, we have a love interest that… exists, a dopey sidekick that becomes heroic, a really-bad bad guy and a somewhat-sympathetic bad guy, the trademark shiny Marvel visual aesthetic, the obligatory mid/post-credit scenes, and the equally obligatory sense of being “socially conscious.” It feels like you’ve been here before.

But director Ryan Coogler takes that and makes it better–he takes the obligatory tropes of the MCU and makes you forgot, from time to time, that that’s what they are.

Going into Black Panther, expected something highly politically charged. On the one side, everyone was proclaiming this a great victory for Black America, the first true Black superhero. (Conveniently forgetting about Blade, my favorite Wesley Snipes role and first unwitting introduction to Guillermo del Toro.) Also, his name was “Black Panther” it was about an African country being the best country on the planet. On the other hand were snarky but intriguing memes about Wakanda being a technologically modern monarchist nation that values its cultures and traditions so much that takes on an isolationist foreign policy and tightly controls its borders. So, whether explicitly SJW or a stealth alt-right hit, I was expecting interesting politics.

The politics was the least interesting part. Isolationism vs. colonialism vs. “nice foreign intervention” was definitely a theme, it took a back seat to the intrigue surrounding the throne and T’Chaka’s legacy. Whatever agenda the filmmakers had in that department, that didn’t seem to be where their heart was.

Their heart was in the characters.

In partisan era, in an age where we are exposed to the raw, indelicately stated views of those very different from us, we tend to reduce our understanding of the world to “that which is clearly right” and “that which is clearly wrong.” We rush to treating our neighbors like they are either morons or evil because their perspective is different from our own.

Now, right and wrong clearly exist. Sometimes they’re even fairly straightforward. But human beings are not simple creatures. They’re rarely orcs or idiots.

One question often discussed by certain friends of mine who maintain the secret, nefarious habit of writing stories is just how stories shape us. Many of us were told growing up that stories change the world, that they shape how people think. With stories, we can transform, or even save, our culture. For some of us, this became a slightly more sophisticated version of “every story has to have a moral.” In other words, tell us what to believe, and tell us why the other guys are orcs or idiots.

That was not Ryan Coogler’s goal.

Some folks in my newsfeed were outraged by the way slavery and colonialism played such a big role in the backstory and general milieu of Black Panther. They took it as Black people blaming all their problems on Whites, and demonization of all White folks. Given Black Panther’s place in the Marvel Universe, I highly doubt that’s a good reading.

I also think it’s a bad reading because Coogler did not make a story about White people. He made a story about Black people. Black Panther was an early and important Black superhero, and his coming into the MCU really is in the context of a push for more representation of Black folks both in front of and behind the camera. This was billed as an opportunity for people to speak to the mainstream whose opportunity to do so is usually limited and filtered through a business world that doesn’t quite belong to them.

Granting that context, the place of colonialism and slavery in the background is not a slap in the face to anybody. It’s a fact of African history, and a fact of Black American history. You complain about the uses that history is sometimes put to, but it’s ridiculous to complain about the fact that it’s acknowledged. That is the world these characters live in because it simply is the real world for a lot of people.

If that doesn’t bug you, and it shouldn’t, you get to see something really fantastic. Ryan Coogler and his excellent cast paint the audience a series of portraits, of characters who have radically different points of view. And then we get to live in them.

First off, take a look at T’Challa. T’Challa has inherited a kingdom from his father. He wants to rule it well, and to honor that legacy. That legacy involves long ages of Wakanda concealing itself from the world, hiding in secret while the rest of the planet descends into turmoil. T’Challa exists to protect his people.

His friend W’kabi takes a slightly different view. He guards the borders of Wakanda, and is therefore key in keeping it both safe and secret. But W’kabi sees what goes on in the outside world, and wants to see Wakand take a more active role in righting wrongs.

Enter “Killmonger,” AKA Eric Stevens—AKA N’Jadaka. Killmonger grew up in Oakland, in poverty and violence, in antagonism with the police and with the White America they seem to represent, in the world criss-crossed with scars of America’s rough racial past and its tense and uncertain present. But Killmonger is actually T’Challa’s cousin. He returns to Wakanda to claim the throne and implement something far more radical than W’kabi’s vision of increased intervention–he wants to reverse the colonization narrative, to lead an uprising and conquer that colonizing nations, to use violence liberate the oppressed everywhere, and to oppress their oppressors.

This opens a gap between T’Challa’s understanding of the world, and the way it actually is. This gap is represented by Zuri and by the spirit of T’Challa’s departed father, T’Chaka. T’Chaka’s brother N’Jobu was sent as a secret agent to the United States. Seeing the plight of Black Americans at the time, he conspired with a black market arms dealer to steal Wakandan vibranium, and began to plot what sounds like a terrorist attack. When T’Chaka confronts him, begins to arrest him, and then N’Jobu attacks Zuri, forcing T’Chaka to kill him. T’Chaka and Zuri flee, leaving  behind N’Jobu’s body, as well his son–young N’Jadaka/Killmonger.

T’Chaka acted in the best interests of his country. He did his job, but it left his brother dead. Worst of all, he left behind an orphan. T’Challa has to struggle with this legacy–his father’s way of defending Wakanda came at a terrible cost, the cost of making a child fatherless, and of that child, now grown, coming back for revenge.

T’Challa and T’Chaka’s perspectives are painted very sympathetically, but so is Killmonger’s. He is responding to a very real grievance, and he is doing so in a way that he hopes will prevent others from enduring what he did. Killmonger is trying to save the world, every bit as much as all the other Marvel characters–except T’Challa.

In the background, we have been informed of the Jabari tribe, a group of Wakandans who refused to adopt the new technology and retreated into the mountains to maintain older, more traditional ways. T’Challa is almost killed, but his exiled friends find him deep in these mountains, being tended by the Jabari tribe and their leader, M’Baku. M’Baku, previously quite menacing, turns out to be friendly and helpful. After a few scenes, we begin to like the guy. He even shows up in the end in a classic here-comes-Han style unexpected rescue scene.

This odd for a group that is basically something between the Benedict Option and the Amish of the MCU. So, brief recap, the anti-technology, ultra-traditionalists are sympathetic, the conquer-the-world-to-save-it villain is sympathetic, and fabulously wealthy and advanced isolationists are sympathetic. Also, good buddy W’kabi, who strikes something of a balance–though a lopsided one–between Killmonger and T’Chaka/Zuri.

Caught between them all is T’Challa. By the end of the movie, Killmonger’s death scene leads us to sympathize with him more, not less. Yet the fact that Killmonger had to be defeated says a lot. T’Challa decidedly rejected his father’s path, but his love for both Zuri and his father remains clear. W’kabi looks like he might be descending into villainy, but there is a last-minute restraint which indicates that he has not so far gone that he is beyond redemption. M’Baku and the Jabari end up heroes.

There is obviously a clear good guy/bad guy divide in the conflict itself, but nobody (well, except the arms dealer) is completely unsympathetic. And that’s the value of what Coogler did.

One of the great virtues of storytelling, one of the most powerful things it can do to shape us, is not to highlight who the orcs and the idiots are, or to tell us exactly what to believe. It’s that it can make us walk a mile in someone else’s shoes–it can make us live life from someone else’s perspective.

I noted at the beginning that Black Panther is definitely a Marvel movie, but in a very real way it is a notch above most of the rest. Rarely in the MCU have I felt like the hero has, by the end, not just become stronger, but also wiser. I have often felt that they have become what I can only call “more socially conscious,” but I rarely come away with the impression that they are more compassionate. Here, I did.

If there’s a moral to the story of Black Panther, it’s not really about isolation or race in America or colonialism. It’s about the value of actually considering another perspective. Like T’Challa, we don’t have to come away in the end having adopted the views of our enemy, just to prove how understanding we are. But we should understand where they’re coming from, what good may be found in their view of the world, and we should acknowledge it.

Of course, that sort of charity and compassion is exactly what you would expect from a reactionary, monarchist paradise. 😉

Go see Black Panther.

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Where I Stand: A Testimony, Of Sorts

Where I Stand: A Testimony of Sorts

My parents started attending church when I was very young. I don’t really remember the transition, but I really took to it. I had a very high view of the world, both the natural side of it and the artificial. It made sense to say there was a hand that knit the stars into the black heavens, that raised up the pines like swaying giants over the forest, that mixed the white sand and red clay, and scattered old river rocks among them. I was also invested in the struggle of good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice, love and hate, life and death. A Creator and a heroic Redeemer made sense.

I readily enough bought into the idea of my own sin, though in my immaturity I often only acknowledged the less significant ones. But as a general concept, I knew that good and evil was in all of us, that good was natural and evil unnatural, and that unless we were rescued, evil would win.

That idea certainly applied to individuals, but it also made sense writ large. The world was a story, starting at a perfect creation, then falling at a moment when man chose sin. In the centuries that followed after, those who remained faithful to God and those who turned from him would struggle over the earth. And, as in any good story, the good guys were fighting a losing battle for most of history. Until, of course, the Hero arrived. He swept in and made the ultimate sacrifice, accepting the consequences for our own ingratitude towards our Creator, our betrayal of the one who loved us. Now, in following him, we partook in his death and his resurrection, and in the long run were promised a redeemed world in which to live. All would be right again.

It’s hard to point to any one place where I learned this narrative. We attended a Bible church at the time, which had an AWANA program. As a family, we often listened to the Christian teaching and talk radio station in our area, and continued to do so long after we switched churches. Focus on the Family with Dr. James Dobson, Adventures in Odyssey, Unshackled, and a wide array of preachers from the Bible Belt and the evangelical community more generally all had an indelible influence on my heart, mind, and imagination. I also got ahold of Christian fiction books as a kid, including a lot of Frank Peretti and the Left Behind series. I enjoyed them both, but especially the latter. I was a big end times nut in my preteen years, falling in love with the drama of the apocalyptic narrative.

At some point, my family switched churches. I was not aware of much of the drama surrounding that decision, and was surprised to find myself quite suddenly in a little wooden church in the boonies where people said scripted phrases back and forth to each other, there was a confession of sin, and we drank alcohol at every communion. It was very disconcerting, and I found myself having to account for the change. This was the first time I moved beyond the bare Bible story into the world of theological controversy.

The whole thing was disconcerting to me, in particular the Calvinist-Arminian controversy. I could hardly side with the Arminians, as their position seemed to deny God’s power and treat man as if he could save himself, as if original sin had not caused a fundamental character flaw. Calvinism, on the other hand, seemed to deny the agency of people. We were not characters in God’s story, not in any real sense. God also seemed to be a much more dour sort of person, a frowning lawgiver who smashed people for offending him in ways they could not have imagined were offensive, and arbitrarily sparing a trembling few who could not know if they were really safe from God’s wrath, or just self-deceived like the rest.

That was a long, hard struggle that very nearly tore me apart. Eventually I conceded the truth of the essentials of the Calvinist position. God did guide the destiny of men and nations, and we could not choose to follow him unless he had first freed us from the power of sin. Granting that, I still felt uneasy about the way some Calvinists I had read talked about God and man and the whole Gospel story. But I put that unease aside. There was far more going on in the world.

I also did an about-face on the end times business. I read a very lucid little tract explaining how the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70 fulfilled the prophecies of John in Revelation in the most minute details. Recognizing my own tendency towards flights of fancy—I was a big believer in UFOs at the time—I conceded that the language of Revelation was, for the most part, far from literal, and that my vision of vanishing churches, planet-wide dictatorships, centaur-locusts, and apocalyptic battles was more indulgent than accurate.

I also adopted covenant theology, which I saw as more connected with Presbyterian government than it necessarily had to be. The concept of the covenant, or solemn agreement of some kind, appealed to me, and it also explained far more of the Bible to a far greater degree than anything I had seen before. Of course, I had never given much concrete thought to the nature of God’s promises or the relationship between the testaments, so that was hardly surprising. Unlike Calvinism and the end times, this transition felt largely superficial and easy, though, as with corporate confession and high liturgy, the paedobaptism that went with it struck me as a bit Roman Catholic.

All these issues and more were profoundly disorienting, and at about the same time as we switched churches, there were a number of other upsetting events going on in my life. I dove into all this theology to give myself an anchor, and found it didn’t quite do so. Furthermore, my longtime love of fantasy, mythology, and fairytale creatures was starting to sit uncomfortably with my newfound sense of obligation to live a purified life before sovereign God. If things had gone on that way, I am not sure where they would have ended, but it was all very depressing and very confusing.

Then along came C. S. Lewis. I had read some of his stuff in the past, and categorized him with the rest of the Christian fiction authors I was familiar with. One person in my life encouraged me to read more of him, saying that I would surely love his stuff. I was reluctant, especially when she recommended Surprised by Joy, which I assumed to be the story of his falling in love with his wife, Joy. (How I knew he had a wife named Joy, I have no idea.) Eventually, though, I caved. I am more glad of that than of almost any other event in my life.

Surprised by Joy narrates Lewis’s early life, and his spiritual growth up until his belief in God. For me, it was earth-shattering. Here was a man who loved the Norse myths, who loved stories like I do, and the glimpses of beauty in the old paganism. Here also was a man who was intensely rational, as I was learning to be, and had no particular dog in any theological fight. Long years of reasoning and argument eventually led him to belief in God, but it was how he reconciled that belief in God with love of the old myths that captured my attention. He did not find that contradictory. Instead, he believed that the beauty he saw in the myths pointed towards Christ, towards the fulfillment of his spiritual longings.

For some time, theology had begun to choke the life out of my imagination. I was turning into one of those people that believes all truths are hard truths, and that if an idea makes you uncomfortable, it is more likely to be an accurate description of reality. Lewis undid that. I dove into both his fiction and his nonfiction, and they gave me both a clear, rational explanation of a broad faith very like what I had been raised with, and the ability to carry on loving the myths and fantasy that appealed to me, without them conflicting with that faith.

At some point I had decided I wanted to be a writer, and Lewis gave me a stronger drive to move in that direction. Life is more than what we read, however. It is our habits and seasonal rhythms, it is who we spend our time with, and it is the sheer necessity of making it to the next day that make us who we are.

My parents had decided long ago that we would be raised with a Christian education. By my secondary years, I had fallen in love with the little classical Christian school they had helped found. It was good for me in so many ways, and one of the best experiences of my life. On the other hand, it was very closely tied to the little church we had begun attending, and the pervasive influence of the Reformed subculture to which it belonged gave me reason to dwell more and more on the rational and theological sides of my personality, to the detriment of my ambitions as a mere fiction writer.

By the time I graduated, I had not quite given up that dream, though I had certainly dialed back my ambitions to a very great degree. I decided I would go to a college that would buy me time in deciding what path to take. There was a college I knew of that would allow me to dive deeper into classical learning and reformed theology, and the degree they offered was broad enough that I could take it anywhere. At the time, I was probably leaning towards the ministry, but I certainly had other thoughts in addition to that. But on top of the curriculum I respected and the options it left open, they also had a deep love of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, whose Silmarillion was one of the most captivating things I had ever read. If they were obsessed with these distinctly Christian authors, surely I could find a home there. And thus it was decided.

Before I talk about my experience there, let me provide some context. Because the church I had spent my early years in was nondenominational, as was the Christian radio I listened to and the school I attended, my picture of the church was very broad. Generally speaking, I thought the Gospel was fairly simple and straightforward, and that Christ embraced all who accepted him, from feverish backwoods revivalists, to the frozen chosen, to big churches in the city with fancy lights and praise bands, to respectable little Episcopalian chapels, and just about everything in between. My slow immersion into the world of Reformed theology had hardened my views on which interpretations of the Bible were right, and therefore who was doctrinally wrong, but I still believed that most everybody could get along.

My experience at college was something like having a bucket of ice-water dumped on your head.

That college was closely related to a pair of churches in the town, and between those three communities a person could disappear for four years and never see anybody else. This in a university town of more than twenty thousand people, with another just like it down the road. And everywhere I turned, these Reformed people were badmouthing the rest of the Church. Dispensationalists got blamed for all manner of outlandish things (and dispensationalism and premillenialism were not at all distinguished). Baptists, I soon found out, were why the American culture was so messed up, and Left Behind was why American Christians were not involved in politics. (?!?!?) Focus on the Family was also apparently too liberal, and definitely compromised, and the Bible Belt consisted exclusively of Pharisaical hypocrites. Now, I was under no illusions as to the shallowness of the faith of many of my fellow Southerners, but to apply that failing to everyone there (and exclusively to them) and then to add that they were legalistic Pharisees when in fact they often lived too loose a life—that just boggled my mind.

Despite this muddle of often contradictory slanders against the church more broadly, I didn’t think the church there was necessarily in a poor place doctrinally or had any lack of love for Christ. Just a little doom and gloom, I thought. I soon found my niche—a little circle of pseudo-Inklings—tried to focus on my studies, and drove on. For a number of years, that worked.

Before we go any further, it has to be said that the number one character flaw in my book had always been ingratitude. I loved Christ and the Gospel story, and kids who took that lightly got very little respect from me. I had watched my parents work hard and shed sweat and tears trying to get our school off the ground, saw all the drama involved in such a project, especially on such a small and intimate scale, and absolutely despised people who could reap the benefits of that and go on complaining. I loved my small town, partly because of its smallness, and I loved the whole region. People who spoke ill of it, who just wanted to get away—they had an attitude problem. Thanksgiving was the first virtue in my eyes, and thanklessness was the vice most likely to get under my skin. (Not that I was never thankless myself—but that is another story.)

So as the terms wore on and I grew less and less satisfied with the college and the church community, the last thing I wanted to do was complain. I flat out could not leave. I had come to this place, and they had given me their time, they had given me opportunities, they had accepted me, more or less, as one of their own, and I would not turn away from them.

The problem was, I felt I had reason to. That community was constantly harping on the sins of other churches, and would not hear one bad word about their own. They seemed to reject Christ’s church, and in their love of theological controversy, had turned the Gospel into something like a political platform that outlined the minutest details of what was and was not acceptable in their culture. People who struggled in that environment were pushed out, and any troubles in the community were swept under the rug and any memory of them was hushed. “Our party” could not be seen to have any trouble within it. Everything wrong with the world must come from outside.

This cut right against my understanding of sin. Sin was in everyone, including those saved by God’s grace. Their own efforts could never make them perfect, and any community was guaranteed to have problems as a result. Admitting such things was not shameful, but merely part of being human in a fallen world. Furthermore, it was a key part of repentance, which is necessary to the Christian life. How could a community follow Christ and pretend to be faultless at the same time?

On other side of that was the fact that this was God’s world. God had created mankind in his image, and sin could not obliterate that image, nor any other part of creation. No human being could be entirely corrupt, and to pretend that unbelievers embodied every possible evil seemed to cut against God’s sovereignty, and common sense. This was doubly the case when the community attacked the rest of the Church, which had the Gospel and the holy Scriptures, and stood before God as equals with us. These people talked as if they wanted to amputate the better part of the Body of Christ.

I was going through other personal issues at the time, and that made things more complex. But the long and short of it is, I switched churches. There were other places in town, and I went there, despite hardly feeling more comfortable. I had grown used to high church liturgy and certain Reformed habits, so my new church could not feel homely. Furthermore, I was still removed from a lot of cultural things I had been raised with in the Bible Belt and the Deep South. I felt more than a little adrift, knowing what I was looking for, but not knowing where to find it.

Under the circumstances, my ears were open to a lot of complaints about the Church generally. The churches I had just left attacked others for lacking doctrinal rigor and liturgical solemnity while overemphasizing the saving of souls, and the church I found myself in said the Church was both too American and too doctrinally tight. (Oddly enough, I have never felt so surrounded by hip, contemporary, upper-middle-class white Americana as at that church.) Other expats from the community I had spent the past several years in complained that the church was too conservatively evangelical, while I did not recognize that church’s somewhat distorted Gospel and trendy alternative theology as very conservative or as evangelical at all.

At any rate, I managed to graduate by the skin of my teeth and made it back to more familiar surroundings. Being displaced on so many levels for so long, I had taken on a much more pessimistic view of life, and was beset by more doubts than I ever remember having. There were teachings I found readily accepted by certain groups up there which I would have called heresy in anyone else, and the sparsity of teaching on redemption itself—hot-button culture war issues were preferred—left me with vague memories of what the Gospel was, and a thirst for grace-filled teaching, but with no idea what it looked like. I was at a loss.

Often I have found that time and space create room for peace. Removed from the constant battles of that town, and granted new rhythms, I gained the ability to process things. I have been living with my family again for about a year now, teaching at the school I grew up in, and attending the Reformed church we switched to when I was young. I listen to Christian radio fairly often, though my favorite preachers come on during school hours or after I’ve started winding down at the end of the day. I made my way slowly through the writings of John, which were some of the most frightening books in the hands of certain people at college. I found them very profitable, and recently got involved in a BSF study on the book of Revelation. I had no idea such a wild apocalyptic vision could be so practical.

Through a tangled series of events, I have also gotten more intentional about my writing than I have ever been. I read much more fiction than I could afford to at college, and my imagination is thriving as a result. I enjoy walking beneath the pines when I can, and recognize more stars than I used to.

Many of the doubts I had have been put to rest, and many questions answered. Many, however, remain. I think that’s healthy. I never want to settled into the complacency that simply accepts an explanation without holding it up to the light of Scripture and God-given common sense to see if it will stand.

I have heard the complaints of burnt out millennials and of culture warriors, of trendy evangelicals and the heirs of fundamentalists. There are so many pundits throwing around ideas for how the church can fix itself, for the platform it can adhere to that will drive up its numbers and restore it to the proper degree of influence in the world. Some of that seems like crass salesmanship to me, but there is also a great deal motivated by a sincere love for something, or else sincere pain that cries out for healing.

In the end, though, I don’t think any of those platforms or strategies or trendy new doctrines have the answer. I think somewhere along the way we forgot that Christianity is a religion. It is not based on a series of beliefs, but on the worship of Christ. Love of a particular party—even if that party is the “we aren’t a party” party—does not create a community, and certainly not a redeemed one. We aren’t here for that We cannot save ourselves as a Church any more than we can as sinful individuals. Only Christ can do that, and that is why we gather to worship him.

That’s a nice sentiment and all, and I think it’s said often enough. It does have real meaning, though, if you can find it. The fact is that platforms, even doctrinal or cultural ones, are not eternal. They are specific to a time and place, and they are born and die. Sometimes very quickly. Lasting communities cannot be built on them.

For example, talking about Left Behind and how to interpret Revelation made sense when it was a bestselling series, but now that the apocalyptic crazes that led up to 2000 and 2012 are past, continuing to talk about seems a bit beside the point. The issues have changed, and so the platforms of all the little parties will too. The same goes for the worship wars and any number of other things. You can plant your flag there, but those hills are made of shifting sand. They won’t be there in a while.

What will be there is Christ. He is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. We have him, we have stories about him, the Scriptures, the Gospel in a number of different tellings. We have the world he created, and we have the people we know—both those who are redeemed and those still in need of redemption. We have our own souls and our own sin, with our own need for salvation and sanctification. Remember these things, and the Church will do well enough.

When I meet a Christian these days, I am far less concerned about whether they agree with me on a series of doctrinal points. I am concerned with whether they seem to be concerned with Jesus Christ and what he thinks. I am concerned with whether they display a humility and a willingness to conform their life to his standards, whatever those turn out to be.

I may disagree with a Roman Catholic on transubstantiation or the veneration of the Virgin Mary, but if I see him pursuing chastity when he doesn’t want to because he loves Christ—he is my brother. If I run into a Pentecostal girl with hair down to her knees who tells me she has a word from the Lord, but who pours over her Bible, making it a guide for her life, and puts others before herself—she is my sister. Maybe the kid with the purple hair and the gauges is more liberal than I’d like, and his worship band makes me uncomfortable, but if he places the words of Jesus over the words of his peers, I respect him We have the same Lord. The same goes for wealthy men in business suits who go to respectable churches, but when times are tough they hold fast to Christ. Nothing that is of Christ is alien to me.

But what about all of the problems in the Church? What about all the things that need to be fixed? I still think those can be pretty significant, but finding some conservative scapegoat, or some liberal boogieman, or some high church spook to blame it on, does no one any good. We are here to worship Christ together, to serve him and learn from him. Our sins are our own, whatever circumstances might make them easier. We have enough trouble repenting of them without paying attention to what the guy across the map is doing. More often than not, that self-righteous crusading serves as a nice distraction from our own problems, a good reason to close ranks and cover up our sins.

The Church I’d like to see is one at peace. Sunday should be a day of rest, not a day of war, and fellowship should encourage brothers and sisters in their walk, not fill them with fear of the world. Christ is sovereign. He has conquered sin and death, and there is nothing you or me or those lunatics in the church across the street can do about it. God is sovereign. That’s the end of it, and our job is just to accept that. We worship him. That’s what makes us Christians.

And that, I suppose, is my testimony. I stand on Christ, however imperfectly, and find anything else more than a little disappointing. It’s that love for an actual God, not platforms vaguely related to his commands, that I want to see blossoming out there in the world. But before I see that, I have to see it in myself. Salt does not give its savor unless it is already salty, and light that’s not lit doesn’t shine. So that’s where I am. I stand with Christ, and want to get better at it.

Honesty, Branding, and Businessmen

            I’m putting together a YouTube channel for a project I’ve been working on. I had planned on releasing it on a friend’s channel, but after some consideration, we decided it would be best not to. This resulted in an immediate panic on my part. I realized that if I created my own channel, it would have to be named, and might require a blurb or two, something defining who I was and what I was doing here.

            I like writing. I love to tell stories, sometimes I like to blog or write an essay, and occasionally I make a foray into the wonderful world of poetry and spoken word. I would like to turn that into a career. Over the years that task has seemed either daunting or a matter of course, depending on how optimistic I was when I woke up that morning. But it’s always involved a plethora of very different projects, not all of which fit together into a coherent picture. I have all sorts of plans and dreams and castles in the air, and asking me to actually sit down and say what I’m about as a writer, asking me to boil all that down into a simple self-definition, asking me to actually get down to it and brand myself—asking me to do that is a little intimidating.

            “What?” I think, “You mean I actually have to start somewhere?

            My friend was amused, and probably didn’t quite get the panic. He’s more of a get-it-done type, less prone to worry. So he gave me a book about branding called Crush It! by Gary Vaynerchuk, who is a very successful businessman. And I have to be honest, thinking about writing as if it were a business feels a bit cheap to me. A little cynical. I’m not here to make money, I’m here to communicate! To tell stories! To make art!

            But Vaynerchuk is not cynical. This is a guy caught up in the sheer fun and creativity of business. The subtitle of his book is Why Now is the Time to Cash in on your Passion. He wants everybody to make a living not just doing something they can live with, but doing something they enjoy. And Gary Vaynerchuk made a point about business that caught my attention.

            The best way to brand yourself, the best way to market your product, is to be honest. Customers value sincerity. Consumers want someone they can trust. An honest businessman catches your attention. You know who he is and where he stands. He doesn’t pretend to be something he’s not, and that’s attractive. He’s not trying to deceive you or manipulate you, he’s here because he’s passionate about his product and he wants to share that passion. The fact that he can make a living off of it is simply the beauty of passion meeting opportunity.

            There are two lessons I got out of that, and the first is rather obvious: businessmen are not money-hungry, soulless, vampires. They are people doing what they love. Yes, they market things, they target consumers. Yes, they do whatever it is they do in exchange for money. But if you could make a living doing something you enjoyed, wouldn’t you jump at the opportunity?

            The current cultural climate is not friendly to businessmen. When I was younger, I was insulated from that by living in a community of free-market types and blue-collar workers. I was taught respect for people who worked hard to get a job done and to earn a living, and I was taught to be thankful for an economic system that allowed the people on the bottom to work their way to the top. But for the past four years, the circles I’ve run in have not had the same values. “Big business” is that thing that exploits poor people, colludes with the government, and destroys the environment. And because I run in artsier circles at least some of the time, business is that thing people do when they no longer have the courage, the drive, or the inspiration to live life creatively.

            See, people are funny. We can talk all day about not judging a book by its cover, about not being prejudiced. Pretty much everyone agrees that you should give people the benefit of the doubt and actually get to know them before passing judgment on them. But in practical application, we rarely do this. The people in my life who shout the loudest and proudest about tolerance are often the first to mouth off about businessmen. And, sometimes, I buy into their preconceptions.

            But in Vaynerchuk I was confronted with the fact that people who market and sell stuff for a living aren’t just suits who sold out. They can be passionate, creative, and honest. And it’s Vaynerchuk’s emphasis on honesty that catches my attention. If you deceive your customers about yourself or your product, for a while you may see some success. But over the long run, they won’t trust you, they won’t stick around, and they certainly won’t recommend you to their friends. Market deceptively, and you’re just another guy selling just another version of the same old product. Market honestly, and you’re a guy I know and trust, a guy I will buy from. Honesty pays off.

            That’s the other lesson I got out of that book: Honesty pays off. In a world of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and blogs like this, we all have the opportunity to put on a different face, to pretend to be someone we’re not. This is an age-old temptation. People lie about themselves and put on airs in order to impress others.

            But the funny thing about this is that it doesn’t work. We can all tell a phony. And we all know that if you spend the day pretending to be someone you’re not, in the evening you have to come home and live with who you really are. After all the witty tweets and well-written blog posts and carefully doctored Pinterest photos, you have to live with your own fears and anger and insecurity, your clumsiness, thoughtlessness, and failures. Lie in public, bask in the likes and retweets, but eventually you have to shut off the laptop and be yourself.

            Honesty feels dangerous. Letting people see your strengths, your good side, that’s easy. But letting them see your weakness and your wounds, the places where you are damaged or weird or just don’t measure up, that’s terrifying. It opens you up to insults, to shaming, to exclusion. It’s terrifying.

           But honesty is refreshing. We trust an honest person; someone who doesn’t have it all together, and doesn’t pretend to. We trust his opinion, because we know he’s not just putting on a show. We admire his courage, because we know he passed through fear to obtain it. We admire his strengths, because we feel for his weaknesses. We can sympathize. An honest man is someone you can trust, and in an age of phonies, that’s refreshing.

            Put on airs, and men will trust you only until you fail. Be sincere, and men will trust you despite your failures.

            Lessons from a marketing guru: Honesty is the best policy.

Stories About Womenfolk

So, I’m back in an ill-timed get-serious-about-storytelling phase, which resulted in me spending the entire afternoon reading Film Crit Hulk. Who is Film Crit Hulk, you ask? Why, only the awesomest green-skinned, musclebound blogger in the universe! He’s an anonymous individual in the movie business (dealing mostly with screenwriting, it would seem) who uses a hulk-sized, all-caps writing style to churn out essays on film, storytelling, and culture. Essays that are often longer than the senior theses at my college. And, he is so freaking good at it.*

At any rate, Film Crit Hulk is a feminist, and this impacts his views on the way we tell stories. Now, seeing as female individuals comprise about half of humanity, I really ought to have better-formed thoughts on this. However, I don’t (yet), so I’ll be largely holding my tongue. Except on this one thing.

See, Film Crit Hulk in his smashing article on The Hero’s Journey pointed out that storytellers these days don’t know how to deal with women. They tend to do one of two things: make them a fairy princess, an idol, a Madonna… or else they turn her into a temptress and a femme fatale. And if they want to pay lip service to the notion of gender equality, they just give her a gun– and let her maintain a side-character/love-interest status with very little actual characterization. Hulk then names off a few goddess myths which people interested in writing awesome women might want to check out, and encourages the reader in that general direction.

On one level, my first thought is “cool.” But on another, it makes me nervous. In the effort to go out and prove that women can be just as interesting characters as men, I’m worried about folks turning those women into men. If we want to make good, interesting, excellent female protagonists, we can’t just make them men in skirts. Because, honestly, Braveheart kind of has that market cornered.

I’m all for recognizing the fact that women are people (duh), and even awesome people (seriously, duh), right there in our storytelling. I don’t want a world where guys are the only protagonists and girls are all just the trophies the heroes get at the end.** Or femme fatales, because if the only powerful/independent women are also evil… well, let’s just say that people who tell stories like that make me want to go all smashy on things.

But if you’re a guy trying to avoid these problems and create a good female lead, you have to be careful. Guys don’t always understand other guys, and women are another thing entirely. Female people, you know. That’s a different language to think in. Yes, all people are just people, this is true; but people are complex, so seeing the world through someone else’s eyes is tricky business.

This is not to say it shouldn’t be done. No, I’m just saying it’s good to be cautious. I would rather see an overdone archetype done well, than someone try to think outside the box and end up making a dude in a girl’s body. Or worse–a flat, grey, characterless monstrosity. Because the way I see it, that does women even less justice. Actually, I find it kind of insulting. But what do I know? I’m not the one being insulted.

Anyhow, that’s my two cents. Thoughts welcome.

 

Footnotes

*I read a lot of his articles today. But if you want a good start towards storytelling 101, try his article on Three-Act Structure. It’s a nice taste for his style and some of the stuff he likes to talk about. Also just plain good. Warning to folks of a sensitive eye: Sometime Hulk swear.

** I really wish I had a link to that one scene in A Knight’s Tale where Adhemar and William are talking about “Trophies, horses, women.” Then again, no I don’t. Because this means you’ll just have to go and watch that whole movie just to find that one line. And that would make me happy.

You’ve Got To Believe It

I am a storyteller. Whether I am a good storyteller remains to be seen, but it’s something I do. In that endeavor, I’ve learned a thing or two. One of those is that it’s pretty darn hard to sell a story you don’t believe in. You can think it’s a good story, and you can dress it up in raw talent and technical mastery, but the fact is, if you don’t care then the audience does not care.

It’s not just true for prose, either. I’ve seen acting, and I’ve done acting, and in both cases there’s been good stuff and there’s been bad stuff. You can get the bad stuff from any number of things, but good acting generally only happens when the actor gets inside the character’s head. When you see the world through the character’s eyes, then you can present it the way he sees it. Ask Daniel Day-Lewis or Heath Ledger.

This means that a storyteller has to have a certain talent: empathy. If you want to tell a story, you have to believe the story. If you want to believe the story, you have put yourself in that world. There is a lot of imagination involved in that, and a lot of mental and emotional flexibility.

The problem is, no good story is told with just one character in mind. You have to account for the actions of all the characters, and if it’s a good story, then they will have very different motivations. This means you have to have a second talent: confidence in your own view of the world. You have to be able to look at things from multiple angles, but have enough of your own view to be able to separate yourself from the ones you are presenting.

Good storytelling demands this. Empathy and detachment, subjectivism and objectivism, reconciled in a single mind. If you’re not born with it, you have to learn it. It can be learned, but it takes real work.

These things are important, because no matter how good your story, there will be slow parts. You can’t just skate through on the action scenes or moments of high drama. If you get bored when your character goes out for ice cream, so will your audience. That means you have to want that ice cream so that your audience wants that ice cream. And if they don’t, you better be flanking that scene with a couple things you really do believe in. Because if it’s just one long stretch of things you don’t care about, why should we hear your story?

Now pardon me while I go believe in ice cream.

Time and Love

Humanity are an affectionate lot. Really. No doubt, we love imperfectly, but there is no question that we love quite a lot. We love our parents, our kids, our other halves, our cousins and countrymen. We love the smell of rain and the taste of foreign cuisine. We love the homely, the exotic, and that subtle and perfect mixture of both.  Stories, landscapes, music, words, and small furry animals with deceptively sharp claws. We love like crazy.

But we are imperfect creatures, marred from almost the beginning. Warped as we are, we can no longer love as we should. There are a dozen ways this is true, but to a guy like me, one stands tall in the lineup. As Alabama points out, modern man is in a hurry to get things done, and we rush and rush until life’s no fun. In the fast pace of a society with rapid transportation and instant communication, we are slaves to the clock. All that bustling means we do less of what we love and more of what we think is expected. And after that, we spend time vegging to make up for the rapid pace of a packed day.

This hits me particularly hard, because where others might see calendars and schedules, I see a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff. For example, I went to college with an absolute passion for reading and writing and all things high fantasy. Yeah, I was that nerd. But with college came class, and homework, and a job (when I could get it). In the cracks I tried to cram a new circle of friends and a freshly forged social life. By the end of sophomore year, I could not read for a solid hour without setting the book down half a dozen times. At the beginning of junior year, I couldn’t tell you the names of half those books I used to love. I spent no time on what I loved, and soon I had lost the ability to.

This is doubly true of my writing. I used to write in a dozen different styles in imitation of as many genres. I had scribbled out scraps of high fantasy, scholarly essays, dark fantasy, political commentary, “scholarly” treatises, science fiction, a smattering of history and chronicle, snooty poetry, armchair theology, and singsong lyrics. After two years of no good reading and only hasty writing, I descended into drivel. The only topic I had any strength on was what had occupied my mind continuously: home.

By now it should be obvious that a great deal of what I put on this blog is just working out whatever I’m dealing with at the moment, so it should come as no surprise that I could go on in detail with more examples from my own life. I’ll spare you. I’m sure you can sympathize, and with a little reflection you can probably come up with far more painful examples. The fact is, if you love something, you have to devote time to it, or you will lose it.

This means, especially if you are like me and have zero time management skills, you can’t put off whatever it is you hold to be important. There will always be something else to do. If there is a time vacuum in your life, it will be filled. You have to fight for what you love, cramming it into spare moments and carving out blocks of your day. You do not have time for what you love, you make time for what you love. And it is that effort that shows you love it, and that allows you to love it better.

That said, I am going to end this post and finish up chapter one, draft two of my novel. Go and do likewise, with whatever you love.

God bless.

My Beef With Coming of Age Fantasy

In my experience, starting anything with a qualification softens the blow of a potentially offensive point far too much. But my fantasy-nerd street cred is probably lower than it ought to be right now, and I am attacking what seems to be one of the biggest selling genres of the day. So, let me just say that I love fantasy, I love coming-of-age stories, and I love coming-of-age fantasy stories–when they are done well.

The problem is that our artistic culture is stupid. It is filled with artsy artists, who tend to be insecure, introspective brats who like to dream up a world with themselves at the center. On top of that, people who are coming of age are some of the most self-centered people on the planet. Combine the two, and you have a recipe for annoying.

How many stories of this type have you read, or even watched? Now tell me if the following seems to accurately describe your experience: 1) protagonist is incredibly gifted, 2) protagonist is horribly misunderstood, 3) protagonist finds himself in situations demanding far too much of him, but through his aforementioned giftedness and some cheesy variant on finding himself manages to come out okay, and 4) all those people who horribly misunderstood him are either publicly proven wrong or else our victorious hero has for his own ends chosen to allow his natural inferiors to continue in their pitiful ignorance. Sound familiar? I swear I’ve read it a million times.

This is annoying on so many levels. For one, coming of age stories can actually be awesome. I mean, this is where kids discover things like the opposite sex, their vocation, what it means to take risks and be responsible, real good guys and real bad guys, the passage of time, and how cool the world actually is. Not to mention the magical ability to suddenly understand some of the most important people in their lives–their parents. That is an era of life and a process that is rich with themes and characters and potential plotlines. Wasting it on “poor me, I’m misunderstood” is just stupid.

Then there’s the fact that it essentially ruins the fantasy genre. What is awesome about fantasy, what draws most people to it (or draws me to it, anyways), is the fact that it deals with the world on this grand, sweeping, epic scale full of wonder, excitement, and discovery. You can be taken on an Odyssey that introduces you to so much that is new, so much that has never been seen before, and then do cool things with all that new stuff. It is just plain fun. And a misunderstood teenager story limits the vast potential of fantasy into the most cramped of possible spaces–the distance between the two ears of a  kid who won’t grow up.

That is, of course, the central irony with this trend. I don’t have a problem so much with protagonists who think they are misunderstood–I’m not sure any teenager doesn’t think that–no, I have a problem with a story that says they are right. That kind of story, where junior proves his superior wisdom over society or the authority figure, that’s a coming of age story where absolutely no one comes of age. There is no growth, only the increasing rot of an already bad egg.

But like I said, I don’t mind if the character starts out that way. In fact, I would love to see a coming of age story where that fantasy setting is used beat the living angst out of the kid, pitch him out of his own skull, and let him discover the awesomeness of the world around him. As in, the world and its inhabitants which are awesome, not him or his skills or his gifts or specialness. A coming of age fantasy that is humbling. That I would love.

Now, I’m sure they are out there, somewhere in books that aren’t fifty year old products of awesome British Christian academics. Somewhere, someone alive and kicking has written a non-winy-misunderstood-teenager style coming of age fantasy, and possibly even written a good one. But where? Honestly, have you heard of one?