Why “deCOMPOSE”?

by Mike Duran · 1 comment

I started this website back in 2005. I’m sometime asked why I named my blog deCOMPOSE. It comes from my short essay entitled Let Us Decompose which was first published in Relevant Magazine back in 2006. Here is that brief essay:


G.K. Chesterton said, “Art is the signature of man.” Some believe men rose from monkeys. But let the record show, monkeys have no interest in sketching men. It is precisely our urge to sketch monkeys, which separates us from them. As the apologist wrote, if man was “an ordinary product of biological growth, like any other beast or bird, then it is all the more extraordinary that he was not in the least like any other beast or bird.” When ancient man first dipped his thumb into the blood of berries and scraped that red swath across cool granite, he distanced himself from elks and orangutans.

Human history is one of composition. Of course, we’ve come a long way from dancing reindeer and stick men on blackened cave walls. Today, the cave walls are digital and the stick men dance in cyberspace. But whether it’s Mozart or 50 Cent, Rembrandt or Warhol, Aesop or Spielberg, the urge to compose—to create new beings and worlds, new stories and songs—is unique to us. We write, paint, carve and mold; we sit hunched over parchments and tape recorders, laptops and canvas, searching for the right word, the right sound, the right image, yearning to rise above our earthly origins and distance ourselves from elks and orangutans.

Yet the creative spark reveals more about us than just our dissimilarity to animals. In a way, all composition is really de-composition. The word “decompose” simply means “to separate into components or basic elements.” It is to categorize, quantify, sort and stack; it is to break something down to its lowest common denominator.

In reality, we never really create anything: we reassemble existing parts, cut and paste objects and ideas from the known world, reshuffle the deck. Even abstracts are just extracts of the ordinary. I mean, when was the last time a new primary color was invented or a missing musical note discovered? Genuine originality, it’s been said, is rare. I’d venture to say, it’s extinct, dead with the first chisel strike or quill stroke. “There’s nothing new under the sun,” King Solomon said, without crediting his source. Maybe this is why plotlines follow the same basic patterns. Prime time TV is a constant karmic retread of new faces trapped in the same tired tales. Even Hollywood, the summit of artistic inclination, cannot rise above the remake. Musicians are judged by who they sound like (part Bob, Beck and Bruce), actors by who they look like (she’s got Jessica’s hair, Nicole’s eyes and Angelina’s lips) and books by how they read (think Harry Potter with a dash of Steele). Even fantasy worlds look like ours and superheroes like us—with a little tweaking. All our creations are re-creations, omelets whipped up from yesterday’s leftovers.

For all our ingenuity and technical advances, no matter how many edits and remakes, we cannot rise above the Story Board. We are as fixed to its laws as Frodo is to Middle Earth. We stitch and sketch, dream up and hammer out, but we cannot transcend.

“In the beginning, God created …” He composed. He assembled parts ex nihilo, “out of nothing.” He spread out the canvas and drew His thumb across the celestial swath. We live in that Composition, on that Canvas; we are the parts He assembled. Herein lies our glory and our deficiency.

We create because we are like Him, but we cannot create like Him.

Unlike God, we cannot make something from nothing. Everything we shape, form, order and arrange requires something else. Like a celluloid hero, the laws of the medium bind us. Poets need language and its laws, for without it their craft is made moot. Some musical forms may push the boundaries, but sour notes are not tolerable—even by the most sophisticated. Architecture can be innovative, as long as the foundation is solid. Characters can be fresh, as long as they are believable. Art must correspond to Reality—in fact, it cannot do anything but that.

If art is the signature of man, as Chesterton suggested, then man is the signature of God. And every film, song, poem or novel, no matter how tired or twisted, is an echo of His original act. So let us borrow, bleed and recast the old, tell the Tale a thousand times over. Let us crush the berries, raise the chisel and strike up the band, for tonight we de-compose.

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There’s no shortage of hatred for Halloween. Mainly from well-meaning religious folks.

  • “Halloween is the devil’s holiday!”
  • “Witches, vampires, and ghosts are not of God!”
  • “Have no fellowship with the works of darkness, but rather rebuke them!”

Those were sentiments I voiced at one time or another. We were the parents who turned the porch light off, did not give out candy to trick-or-treaters, and refused to let our kids dress up. I saw Halloween, at best, as a waste of time and money. At worst, it was a culturally sanctioned celebration of all that is Dark, Evil, and anti-Christ.

So what changed my mind?

First let me be clear about my position: Like Christmas and Easter, Halloween is a mish-mash of pagan, religious, and pop-cultural elements; while some participate in Halloween with evil, occult, or godless intentions, the majority of American celebrants participate innocently (or ignorantly, you could say), with little to no actual commitment to some nefarious intent. For many, the 21st century Americanized version of Halloween is basically national dress-up day. Provided that ones’ participation does not constitute celebrating evil, the occult, or obvious sin, Christians are free to follow their consciences in celebrating the holiday.

I began to change my thinking on Halloween through a combination of doing research (on both Halloween and the horror genre), familiarizing myself with the biblical arguments pro and con, and jettisoning a legalistic outlook on life.

Like many of our national holidays, the origins and “meaning” of Halloween are buried under layers of historical amnesia, cultural change, and hollow symbolism. The first Halloween had very little in common with our 21st century version.

The Celtic festival called Samhain (pronounced SOW-in or SOW-an), which means “summer’s end,” is considered the earliest traceable origins of what we now call Halloween. Samhain (a derivation of Saman, the Lord of Death) marked the death of summer and the beginning of winter. This was considered a night of magic and power, where spirits roamed and demons cavorted. To herald this seasonal/spiritual transition, the living would often sacrifice crops and dress in ghoulish costumes so the dead spirits would mistake them for their own and pass by without incident. Masked villagers would sometimes even form parades to lead the spirits outside of town. Food and treats were offered to Saman to curry favor and appease his wrath, as well as to deceased ancestors who were traveling to the afterlife and needed a brief respite.

A collision between Christian missionaries to Ireland and this old world paganism changed everything.

Rather than completely dismantling a religion, the Church often sought to merge some of its beliefs and practices with their own. All Saints’ Day—a time designated on the Christian calendar to honor all dead saints and martyrs—was moved to November 1st. This was intended to substitute for Samhain. Though pagan belief in supernatural creatures persisted, as did their traditional gods, a synthesized form of the celebration soon emerged. Traditional Celtic deities diminished in status, becoming fairies or leprechauns, sometimes devils, and were often joined by Christian characters like angels and miracle-working saints. Sometimes fantastical, absurd renditions of Satan could even be found at the festivities.

Nevertheless, the old beliefs associated with Samhain never really completely died out. People continued to celebrate All Hallows Eve (the evening before All Saints’ Day) as a time of the wandering dead, where spiritual beings roamed. Folk continued to appease those spirits (and their costumed impersonators) by setting out food and drink. Eventually, All Hallows Eve became Hallow Evening, and then Hallowe’en.

As immigrants flooded America’s shores, they brought various beliefs and customs with them. Soon a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge. In rural America, public events were often held to celebrate the harvest. Neighbors would share ghost stories, tell each other’s fortunes, and engage in mischief-making. By the middle of the nineteenth century, annual autumn festivities were common. That changed in the second half of the nineteenth century when America was flooded with new immigrants. These newcomers culled Irish and English traditions, began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money, a practice that eventually became today’s tradition of “trick-or-treat.”

It wasn’t long before Satan and his minions, as well as Saman the Lord of Death, were stripped of their power.

Whereas the original Fall festivals were decidedly spiritual, their American iterations discarded the saints and devils for family and frolic. By the early 1900s, the holiday had morphed into community and neighborly get-togethers involving games, seasonal foods, and costumes. Halloween eventually lost most of its superstitious and religious overtones and become a secular, but community-centered holiday featuring parades and parties. But by the 1950s, Halloween had evolved into a holiday mainly for the young. This coincided with the baby boom and eventually the centuries-old practice of pumpkin carving and trick-or-treating was revived. American consumer culture took advantage and it wasn’t long before cheap plastic masks and costumes of cowboys, princesses, devils, and angels were being mass produced for the kiddies. Halloween had gone mainstream.

Of course, some churches were busy branding Halloween as Satan’s Holiday. Earnest ministers condemned the celebration as the most important day on the witches’ calendar, and claimed the holiday was covertly intended to domesticate the occult. Rather than fearing the devil, they argued, we have trivialized him. However, for most Americans, Halloween’s religious elements had long ago been stripped away. Saman, the Lord of Death, as well as All Souls Day, had been overshadowed by another god—the god of consumerism.

Last year alone (2016) Halloween retail spending reached a record high in the U.S. at 8.4 billion dollars. Other records were broken, including the number of those celebrating (171 million) and how much was spent per participant on costumes and candy ($82.93). Halloween is typically ranked as one of the most popular holidays on record, sometimes surpassing Easter, Thanksgiving, and Mother’s Day. Americans now spend more money on Halloween than any other holiday except Christmas.

The popularity of Halloween has grown in direct proportion to the rise of pop culture. Now it is not uncommon to find Halloween costumes and images melded with both the creepy and the comedic. Whether it’s costumed witches, clowns, anime characters, or superheroes, you’ll likely find some iteration of them on October 31st. Halloween has become a barometer of our culture’s latest villains or box office hits. It is a time to mock political figures, lampoon celebrities, emulate icons, and affirm current trends. From dinosaurs to zombies, robots to slashers, you are sure to find some sampling of the weird and wacky.

Halloween has thrived, but only as it has shed its somber religious roots in favor of fun, festivity, revelry, and lots of sweets.

Understanding the history and the cultural synthesis of the holiday helped me to see it in perspective. Even more important was acknowledging the fact that vestiges of paganism can be found embedded in many of our most sacred holidays and strewn throughout our national life. For example:

  • Christmas was the Winter Solstice
  • Easter was Ostara (the Spring Equinox)
  • Halloween was Samhain
  • Valentine’s Day was Imbolic
  • May Day was Beltane
  • Tuesday was Tyr’s (Tiw’s) Day
  • Wednesday was Woden’s (Odin’s) Day
  • Thursday was Thor’s Day
  • Friday was Freya’s Day
  • Saturday was Saturn’s Day
  • Sunday was the sun’s day

So I was faced with the question, Why rail against Halloween when so many other holidays and cultural markers have pagan origins or elements? Truth is, the same people who denounce Halloween often put up a Christmas tree, a wreath, or color Easter eggs… customs that are all pagan in origin. In fact, the very currency we work for and exchange contains possible occult and esoteric symbols. So how does a well-meaning person with a healthy fear of the occult and paganism respond? Must we never celebrate Halloween, color Easter eggs, decorate a Christmas tree, or use paper bills? The answer, for me, was rather simple — I don’t worship my Christmas tree.  I also don’t worship or recognize Ostra, Imbolic, Thor, or Saturn. Christians can participate in an event or ceremony that has some pagan origins or attachments without honoring those elements. As such, I can celebrate Halloween without invoking Saman, Satan, or Druidic lore.

Perhaps the most important factor in my change of heart regarding Halloween came from my study of Scripture. You see, a similar debate occurred in the early church that is very instructive in this regard. Many new converts had been saved from paganism and were averse to any vestiges of their former ways of life. For example, they refused to eat meat that was sacrificed to idols believing that it was spiritually corrupted. Others did not share their convictions and had no problem eating this meat. The apostle Paul spoke to this issue in I Corinthians 8. He concluded with three important points:

  1. Idols are nothing. They have no power over meat. (vs.4)
  2. “food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.” (vs. 8)
  3. Don’t allow your liberty to stumble someone with a weaker conscience (vs. 9)

Paul follows a similar line of argument when speaking to the Roman Christians. In this case, the church was arguing over not just what food they should or shouldn’t eat, but what special days should or should not be observed. He writes:

Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. (Romans 14:1-9 NIV)

So once again Paul reasons that certain foods or certain days are no more “sacred” than another. Sunday is not intrinsically a “holy” day just as meat sacrificed to idols is not intrinsically unholy. Rather, we should be persuaded by own our consciences and give others the freedom to do the same. Or as Paul puts it, “Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind” (vs. 5).

Similarly, I’ve come to believe that the celebration of Halloween falls under “disputable matters” (vs.1). There is no clear biblical compulsion for or against celebrating Halloween. Though there are pagan elements of Halloween, there are also deeply religious ones, many of which are celebrated today during All Saints’ Day. Though there are those who use Halloween as an opportunity to revel in evil or venerate something/someone devilish, there are those who use Halloween to celebrate family, community, or their favorite pop-cultural character. Halloween has become too big, too historically convoluted, too commercialized, and too much a part of American culture, to attach one specific verdict or motive. People celebrate Halloween for lots of various reasons, both good and bad.

But there is just nothing inherently evil about dressing up as a pirate for the office party.

Mind you, I’m still not a huge fan of Halloween. I’m just no longer a Scrooge about it. I have no problem taking the grandkids trick-or-treating, decorating my truck up for Trunk-or-Treat, or judging the best costume at the pageant. Sure, I don’t personally dress up. I think the amount of candy consumed by our kids this time of year is insane. And the celebration of gore bothers me. But personally, it’s come down to the realization that I have a tendency to be legalistic, and there’s no compelling reason to believe that anyone who participates in Halloween is somehow a pawn of Satan.

Please understand, I am not trying to persuade anyone to chuck their concerns about the occult or spiritual darkness. As Paul wrote, “Each of [us] should be fully convinced in their own mind.” If you believe that participation in Halloween is somehow evil, then by all means don’t do it. Just please note that there are many aspects of our culture and history that can be traced to pagan origins. Like meat sacrificed to idols, things aren’t inherently unholy just because a druid once touched them.

Whatever your opinion, Halloween is an ever-changing reminder of our spiritual roots and just how far we’ve drifted from them. It’s evolved from a religious / ethnic celebration to a blend of street festival, fright night, and vast commercial enterprise. Drawn from an array of sources as disparate as the classic monsters of Hollywood to pagan harvest festivals, this constantly morphing holiday blends the mystery of life beyond the grave with pop cultural whimsy, forming a bizarre concoction of the somber and the comedic, the saintly and the sinful.

Perhaps the bigger sociological issue, for me, is why people like dressing up, pretending to be something they’re not. And why people like being scared. Which is a subject I’ll explore in my next post.

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HerosJourneyThe Hero’s Journey is a narrative pattern first identified by mythologist Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Campbell identified “a universal motif of adventure and transformation that runs through virtually all of the world’s mythic traditions.” That “motif” revolves around three basic movements:

  1. Departure
  2. Initiation
  3. Return

Within that framework are specific movements which typically cast a hero or adventurer who is called to a task greater than themselves, plunged into a crisis (inner or outer), transformed by the journey, and returned to “normal” life with knowledge, wisdom, and/or power from said journey.

This narrative pattern can be identified in many of our most beloved stories. For example, this Star Wars fan page includes a nifty chart explaining how both Star Wars and The Matrix films follow the Hero’s Journey pattern in detail. This IMDb list includes over 60 films which trace the Hero’s Journey motif — from Fight Club, to Gladiator, to Kung Fu Panda, to Avatar.

Interestingly enough, the Hero’s Journey parallels a narrative that is also found in the Bible. It is a narrative with near universal resonance that reflects motifs, themes, and concepts which consistently arise in human traditions and myths. In short, the Hero’s Journey is our journey of redemption, a quest to save ourselves. And by saving ourselves, we save the Universe.

In his book Eternity in Their Hearts, anthropologist Don Richardson describes how God has given prior witness of Himself to all peoples — even pagan peoples. Because of this, certain motifs and themes can be found across many culture. Many of these primitive myths, legends and traditions reflect a redemptive narrative and often pre-figure and foreshadow the Gospel.

Of course, to the student of Scripture, this is not revelatory. Romans 1-3 tells us that every human possesses an intuitive sense of a Law and a Lawgiver. This is often called general revelation because it is a knowledge of God which is plainly available to all mankind. Thus Richardson highlights stories and prophecies from numerous cultures — Burmese, Chinese, Incan, African, even North American Indian — that reflect biblical concepts. The concepts of One True God, a universal Fall, Heaven, Hell, a Sacrificial Lamb, a sacred Book, and a Great Savior who will rescue us, have existed for centuries in hundreds of cultures — even ones with no previous knowledge of the Gospel. Along the way, Richardson weaves fascinating real-life stories from around the world. He writes,

This is surely a powerful extra-biblical evidence for the authenticity of the Bible as revelation from the one true universal God! It is also. . . the prime reason on the human level for the phenomenal acceptance of Christianity has found among people of many different folk religions worldwide. In addition, Scripture after Scripture has testified down through the centuries that our God has not left Himself without witness — even apart from the preaching of the gospel (see for example, Acts 14:16-17 and Romans 1:19-20 and 2:14-15). That witness — though different in kind and quality from the biblical witness — is still a witness to Him! How tragic then that Christians in general have been told almost nothing of this worldwide phenomenon of monotheistic presupposition underlying most of the world’s folk religions!

Even the most polytheistic of cultures tend to have a “monotheistic presupposition” in that they gravitate toward a “God of gods” or “Supreme God.” The Greeks propounded a plethora of deities, nevertheless Zeus was considered “the king of the gods.” Scripture even suggests this monotheistic impulse exists on a personal level — we instinctively intuit God, His attributes and the wrath to come (Rom. 1:18-20). Though we worship at many altars, there is a haunting sense that we are accountable to only One.

In a similar way, the Hero’s Journey intersects with some of these biblical impulses. Though it does not articulate a god or gods, the Hero’s Journey is focused on something and Someone above ourselves, another place or Ordeal that takes us out of ourselves, crossing some divine Threshold where we can be “born again” and return fully alive. This “call to adventure” resonates in each one of us. It is a call to rise above ourselves, to discover some higher purpose, to cross the threshold of the mundane and the “ordinary,” to be resurrected. The believer imparts this new life to the world, her “resurrection” compels the resurrection of others, it brings the extraordinary world into the ordinary world. In the same way that Jesus brought life to others and mentored His followers, the pilgrim in the Hero’s Journey mentors others into and through their own “adventure.”

One reason why the Hero’s Journey resonates through so many cultures and mediums is because it is tethered to a universal truth — we are each called on an extraordinary journey, a pilgrimage of adventure and resurrection, a quest to rise above ourselves, to experience spiritual death and rebirth, and to bring that magical “elixir” of life back into the Ordinary World so that others can begin their own journey. It has often been pointed out that the recurrence of superheroes in myth, film, and literature is a reflection of our own subconscious yearning for a Savior. The Hero’s Journey taps into that longing with its Mentor motif. In the same way the “hero” needs someone to call her out of herself and lead her to new life, we are born hearing an “echo of Eden,” the call of the Shepherd gathering His lost sheep, the One True Mentor who will lead us through the Threshold and bring us finally into life and rest.

Writing in The Gospel According to Tolkein, Ralph Wood writes how the Gospel is rooted in so many myths and tales:

The Gospel is more than a fairy story [myth] because it is not a human discovery or invention: it is an actuality that occurred in space and time. Christ was actually born, and he actually lived and died and was resurrected. Here is God’s own Story wherein the Teller of the tale becomes its chief Actor. Rather than canceling all other stories, however, this one is what they have all been stumbling and point toward. The Gospel is the fulfillment and completion of all other stories.

In a sense, the Gospel is the ultimate Hero’s Journey in which the Creator Himself enters the Ordinary world, passes through the ultimate crucible, and returns triumphant. He now calls us to join Him in a grand adventure, a quest with Him as our Mentor, through the Innermost Cave of Darkness, over the Threshold, and on into the resurrected life. “Go and make disciples off all nations!” He now proclaims. Which means telling and retelling the Story, the ultimate Hero’s Journey.

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A writer friend recently pondered (in an online writing community I’m part of) whether he should use a pen name when publishing his fiction. The reason? He’s a minister at a church and feels that other staff pastors won’t “get” his fiction gig. In fact, some might be downright hostile to it.

Sadly, this is not an uncommon position for Christian ministers who pursue writing and/reading fiction. I recall contacting a pastor friend shortly after I released my first novel. He ran a ministry for other pastors and I thought it would be a perfect place to give away some free print copies of my book. (After all, the story was about a pastor and his church.) However, the interest was minimal. My friend confessed afterwards that many pastors just aren’t very interested in reading fiction.

Having been on staff with two different churches over an 11 year stretch, I can attest to building a library top-heavy with the subject of 1.) Theology and 2.) Administration. I’m guessing when most pastors aren’t reading Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion or Barth’s Church Dogmatics, they’re reading Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People or Blanchard’s The One-Minute Manager.

But The Hobbit?

There are probably lots of reasons why pastors don’t read fiction. When one enters the ministry, a whole host of demands start pressing. Suddenly, time management becomes an issue, as does doctrinal integrity, church government, and the care and feeding of troubled souls. Reading fairy tales, frankly, seems irrelevant to someone dealing with such heady issues as the Atonement, Salvation by Grace, and such practical issues as resolving marital conflict. Compound this with the fact that we tend to see fiction as make-believe. And being that pastors traffic in Truth, it cuts against the grain of their fundamental mission. Another factor is skepticism toward pop culture in general. Over the last thirty years, the Church has often retreated from cultural interaction, opting instead to quarantine themselves against secularism and sit in judgment. As such, the arts — theater, film, music, literature — are branded as “worldly” and left to the devil.

Either way, pastors often develop a utilitarian view of life, one in which art and imagination become tertiary, non-essential, expendable, if not altogether perilous.

For the longest time, Narnia just seemed irrelevant to what I was doing as a minister. However, there came a time in my ministry — precipitated, I think, by the ever-present need for spiritual fresh air — when I decided to read something other. I’d been enjoying some of C.S. Lewis’ non-fiction works — Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, etc., which seemed status quo for a young pastor — and was intrigued by the amount of fiction in Clive’s canon. Why would someone with such philosophical prowess devote so many pages to spacemen and talking animals?

So I started with something up my alley, you know, just to see…

Having read Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Arthur Clarke and the other sci-fi-ers of my adolescence, Lewis’ Space Trilogy seemed apropos. The story of Ransom’s journey out of the “silent planet” to a world of fantastic beings ruled by a great spirit named Maleldil, captured my imagination! Far from pure escapism, the trilogy encapsulated Lewis’ theology wonderfully.

Could it be that fiction was a powerful vehicle for truth?

Anyway, it opened up the floodgates. From there I read The Chronicles of Narnia, The Pilgrim’s Regress and The Great Divorce. After that, it was The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Charles Williams’ The Place of the Lion, George MacDonald’s Phantastes and Lilith,  Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday and finally the fictional work that Lewis considered his best, Till We Have Faces.

I suppose someone could view it as escapist. However, for me, reading fiction transformed my worldview, informed my theology, and reinvigorated my ministry. How?

Allow me to offer Five Reasons Why Pastors Should Read Fiction:

  • Reading fiction — good fiction — awakens the beauty and power of language. No other book made me want to be a writer more than The Two Towers. The grandeur of the story and the eloquence of the craft kindled something that lay dormant in me. I wept, at times, as I read that book (silly, huh?). Good fiction reaffirms the power and beauty of words. And since words are the preacher’s stock in trade, he does well to see them strung together rightly.
  • Reading fiction stokes the imagination. “Christian imagination” is not an oxymoron. If anyone should explore and articulate the wonder and mystery and sublimity of creation, it should be believers. And because we are made in the image of our Creator, we are built to create. Good stories rouse our creative genes. And, frankly, there’s no one who needs to keep those creative synapses firing like a minister.
  • Good stories speak to us in ways that exposition and data cannot.  Of course, some could argue that Christ’s stories were instructional. Nevertheless, it doesn’t negate the fact that He used fictional persons and plots to engage people. This says a lot, I think, about how Jesus viewed His audience. Fact is,  It’s one thing to be told God is gracious and merciful. It’s another to watch the prodigal leave his home, blow his money, and come limping back, only to see his father running towards him, arms outstretched, with plans for a big party. Or as Tim Downs in his keynote address to the ACFW conference one year said, “Thou shalt not” touches the head. “Once upon a time” touches the heart.
  • Reading fiction also helps us stay tuned to pop culture at large. Granted, this might not be the best reason to read Harry Potter. But the Harry Potter phenomenon says something about people. Why are we drawn to certain films and stories? Could it be our fascination with certain themes and archetypes is indicative of intrinsic spiritual needs? Sure, fiction has its share of sleazy, shoddy, ill-intended stuff, just like any other medium. Nevertheless, popular fiction can be a great gauge of cultural interests and an effective springboard to address the needs of a congregation.
  • Reading fiction breaks the potential monotony of the ministry routine. During the peak of my ministry (if there was such a thing), I can recall retiring every afternoon to read The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen Donaldson. Oh what joy it was to leave the meetings, the counseling, the delegation, the study, to visit with Saltheart Foamfollower and his cynical sidekick. Yes, we need hard theology, and woe to us if we don’t apply ourselves and our congregation to it. But there is nothing like a story to flesh out the mystery and majesty of Grace and provide a fresh wind to our weary soul.

Perhaps some will interpret this as an argument against exposition, as if I’m suggesting doctrine takes a backseat to entertainment. No doubt some ministers sacrifice substance for style, and prefer fiction to the more rigid implications of Christian theology. After all, it’s a lot easier to thrill a congregation with a good story, than outline eschatology and atonement. Still, there’s a lot of good reasons for pastors to read fiction. In fact, The Chronicles of Narnia and The Institutes of the Christian Religion may be equally essential to the minister’s library.

* * *

This article was expanded from a previous post on the subject.

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Sometime in the early 1950s, the CIA began a “quest to locate an ESP-enhancing drug.” As part of that quest, the Defense Department appointed Henry “Andrija” Puharich with locating mushrooms that they believed might unlock psychic powers. The research was conducted under the codename Project MKULTRA and, as an official memo put it, involved “studying and collecting hallucinogenic species of mushrooms of interest.” Among other things, this involved numerous quests into Mexico searching for a legendary sacred mushroom called “God’s flesh.” The mushroom allegedly produced “divinatory powers.” In 1955, Puharich’s team (himself, an ethnomycologist, and a photographer) arrived in a remote village in Oaxaca where a local guide took them into a deep ravine that was awash in the mushrooms. Though “tests” produced hallucinatory states in subjects, they did not always achieve the heightened psychic abilities Puharich (and the Agency) had hoped. Further ventures into Mexico took place, as the CIA expressed belief that their growing team of scientists would develop from the mushroom “a secret psychic weapon.” But, alas, news leaked to the public as “pleasure seekers flocked to Mexico to eat God’s flesh.” Eventually, Puharich changed course and began seeking out witch doctors and psychic healers who might help him chart anomalous mental states. All in the name of military research.

This bizarre story is just one of many recounted by Annie Jacobsen in her new book Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis. And what a history it is! “My intention… for this book,” she writes, “was not to prove or disprove anyone or any concept, but to report objectively on the government’s long-standing interest in ESP and PK phenomena.” As one who has wearied of sensationalistic conspiratorial tales involving the U.S. government, “objectivity” is something I appreciate in such reportage. Jacobsen’s straight-forward approach and in-depth indexing (the book contains over 60 pages of notes) corroborates that this is indeed history and not some fanciful conspiratorialist concoction.

Interestingly enough, the story starts where you would expect. In her interview with CBS (see video clip below), Jacobsen says,

“Like so many Defense Department programs, it all leads back to the Nazis. Always ….And at the end of the war, military intelligence collected a cache of Nazi documents called Das Ahnenerbe, and that was Heinrich Himmler’s science into this extrasensory perception psychokinesis. We got half, the Russians got the other half, and that led to what we know now as the psychic arms race.”

Thus began the United States military’s attempt to weaponize psychic powers.


Of course, many Intelligence officials were skeptical. Attaching any credence whatsoever to abilities associated with the occult or the paranormal was loathed. It led to internal debates and controversy. Nevertheless, in 1975 the CIA concluded,

A large body of reliable experimental evidence points to the inescapable conclusion that extrasensory perception does exist as a real phenomenon.

As a result, numerous programs have come and gone, all seeking to identify and advance anomalous psychic powers. Perhaps the most notable are those involving remote viewing. That term was coined by researchers at the Stanford Research institute to avoid associating the practice with clairvoyance. For example, the Stargate Project was the collective name for advanced psychic functioning and/or remote viewing experiments that were undertaken for over twenty years. Even more interesting are the stories Jacobsen recounts about apparently successful remote viewing efforts conducted by the military, such as pinpointing the location of a hostage or a downed aircraft via psychic. Of course, the government insisted that such abilities be separated from their occult roots and labeled as pseudo-science. This resulted in an unfortunate attempt to teach remote viewing to the average servicemen and to create a trainable, sustainable course for the production of psychic soldiers. The U.S. Military and intelligence agencies quickly learned that such abilities were not as reproducible as they’d hoped and abandoned the effort.

Although a significant amount of “success” and accuracy was recorded involving ESP and remote viewing, the pursuits led to continued controversy.

“It’s an astonishing conclusion to draw, and it’s created an enormous battleground for decades between the CIA and the Defense Department as they inquire into this area that has so long been associated with the supernatural, with magic. …You have skeptics on the one hand who say, ‘This does not pass scientific method muster. The experiments are not repeatable. It’s pseudoscience,’ You have others in the work who insist based on… stories locating hostages, locating lost weapons, downed aircraft. So this debate, the science versus the supernatural has been going on for decades, and it’s infinitely interesting.”

As fractious as the debate is, the search has not stopped. With the advances of biochemistry and quantum theory, the quest to harness psychic powers and bend reality has only morphed. For example, sources at the Defense Intelligence Agency confirmed that EarthTech International has for years maintained a Defense Department contract to investigate what are known as “excess energy claims” — “devices that allege to be powered by things like magnetic motors and cold fusion (also known as low-energy nuclear reactions).” While some officials explore “retro-causation” — “the idea that the future might influence the past” — others seek to develop “zero point energy.” One Defense Department adviser investigates “people injured physically by anomalous events,” while others research “the genomics of supernormality.”

“We’re back in the same place we were in the ‘70s except for we have advanced technology brought into the mix now. So you have the Defense Department working on programs, but bringing in computer technologists, neurobiologists…”

Phenomena was a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist in the history category. I found the book fascinating. As someone who has always wanted to believe, but have eschewed the nutjobs, Jacobsen’s research provides a healthy balance between believing in the weird, the conspiratorial, without jettisoning historical facts. The U.S. government’s research into psychic phenomena is not make-believe. Perhaps the only question is how willing they are to employ the occult in their quest for military dominance.

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Q & A with Family Fiction

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