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.

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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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I was recently interviewed at Family Fiction about my recent novella Requiem 4. I don’t necessarily see my stuff as particularly “family friendly.” That’s not to say it’s family unfriendly, but that proponents of that term tend to frown upon horror, language, and darker elements in fiction. Nevertheless, it was a fun interview with some good questions asked. Here’s a snippet:

What inspired the story in Requiem 4?

Our culture’s continued fascination with ghosts has always interested me, especially in light of our drift towards a secular, materialistic worldview. How does one jibe the belief that everything is just a byproduct of chemical, material processes with a belief that something (or someone) is possibly out there?

Requiem 4 is a take-off of the contemporary “ghost hunter” phenomenon in which I attempt to mesh those two ideas–a materialistic worldview and the possibility of paranormal phenomenon. At bottom, it’s a tale about how disbelief in the devil plays right into his hands.

Anyway, it was a fun Q&A which you can check out HERE. Requiem 4 is currently available through Amazon for only $0.99.

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On Being a Mutt

by Mike Duran · 4 comments

Had I not heard God being addressed as “Father,” I would never have equated my father with him.

My father was a large man, as most fathers are to sons. Mine was more so. A thick, burly man who could raise his voice to shiver the timbers. His skin was olive and he often wore a beard, usually on the bushy side. Grooming was not one of my father’s strongest traits. He’d served in the Marines and proudly displayed the tattoo of a naked woman entwined in an anchor on his bicep. His name was Bill, but friends and relatives called him Willy. Although my father did not do much work around the house, he was a hard-working man. I knew this from his sporadic presence at home and his smell. He worked at a cement factory and when he came home, he always brought the scent of cement dust and sweat with him. A perpetual tan line creased the back of his neck. He worked all hours, but I often remember my mother yelling at us to be quiet during the day because my father was sleeping.

Later on, my father would become the union president at his plant. Because I had some artistic talent, he occasionally recruited me to draw picket signs. On Strike! and Support Labor! It didn’t seem like a waste of talent; primarily because it was one of the few times he seemed to actually appreciate me. Sometimes there would be a union meeting at our house that involved lots of smoking, drinking, and foul language. My father seemed energized by such affairs, telling stories and rallying the troops with over-sincere union rhetoric. He was that way with people, always keeping a joke handy or, if all else failed, a lampshade.

I sometimes wondered if his gruff, yet flamboyant exterior wasn’t a cover for something more fragile.

The truth about my father’s past came in increments, like debris from a shipwreck strewn along the shoreline over time. I walked for years gathering shards of wreckage from the surf, assembling a working knowledge of our family history.

One such bit of info was about our last name. “You don’t look like a Duran,” became a common observation after introductions. It made me wonder what Durans were supposed to look like and why we didn’t look like them. My father offered no insight, which became his MO, and forced me to go through grade school forming awkward responses to the question “How’d you get that name?” to which my typical reply was, “My dad gave it to me.”

It wasn’t long before I learned that Duran was not our real last name.

As most things in our household, this too came out in stages, each revelation marked by a new wall of silence. By the time I reached adulthood, after discussions with various relatives and family members, I learned that my father had been orphaned as a child. He’d been born somewhere in the Ukraine and abandoned by his real father. His stepfather moved them to America. Apparently, the surname Duran was either given, changed, or mistakenly attached. But for now, my real last name is awash in history.

Which is fitting, I think.

My father would never have described himself as having been abused. To him, whining was for wimps. He always wanted me to grow up with a similarly tough exterior, and did his best to ensure I did. My father was old school in this regard. Not only did he use a thick leather belt to apply corporal punishment, he had me pull down my pants when he did, making sure no shred of clothing would absorb the impact on my bare backside. I learned later that his stepfather, a rather mysterious figure referred to as Pap Duran, had been a violent abuser. My father would have never divulged this, of course. It was my Aunt Mary who told us about finding my father, as a boy, locked in a closet once. Such was Pap Duran’s disciplinary technique.

My dad managed to escape his stepfather’s house and lived on the streets of Monessen, Pennsylvania, where he was eventually raised by Roman Catholic nuns. He loved to tell stories to my brother and me about his time as a street urchin. How he started smoking at the age of eight, and how his buddies swam the Monongahela River and braved water moccasins, not always successfully. And how he saw a man die in the gutter with his brains hanging out from a bar fight. I was sure it was intended to make me appreciate my own beatings. It didn’t.

However, it did make me wonder if our move west wasn’t part of that existential flight.

Learning that your last name isn’t your real last name and that your father’s family history is better left alone, is rather disconcerting.

Ancient mapmakers, when reaching unexplored territory, would often sketch some mythical monster, a griffin or Cyclops, along with the warning, “Here there be dragons!” Likewise, if I peered too far back into my foggy genealogy, I feared what other monstrosities might be discovered. Apparently, my parents did too, for they never spoke of that diseased branch of the family tree. I never met my grandparents on my father’s side, neither my real grandmother and grandfather, nor my step-grandfather; I never saw pictures, I never heard stories.

However, we carried their culture with us.

For example, on holidays or family get-togethers, our meals always consisted of old world Eastern European cuisine—cabbage rolls, kielbasa, sauerkraut, pierogi. It’s a tradition us Durans still carry on today. However, the natural connection between Duran and pierogi escapes most people. I can still remember the puzzled look of a visitor, a young friend of mine, who approached the table at my parent’s house with his dinner plate, staring bewildered into a pot of steaming cabbage rolls. Apparently, he was expecting something more… Duran.

My mother’s lineage is far less hazy. Her family can trace themselves all the way back to one Stephen Caudill, who came to America from Scotland around 1720. Along the way, my ancestors on that side of the family fought in the Revolutionary War, built log cabins in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and organized churches. This “spiritual lineage” is quite fascinating to me. In my office, I have a pamphlet my great grandfather’s brother, who was part of the Caudill lineage, wrote entitled “The True Church.” He was a Methodist minister, joined Boston University in 1925, and became its fourth president.

On my father’s side, the rumor was that we were related to Genghis Kahn.

Either way, my genealogy is a road that can be traced to multiple forks, swampland, and occasional dead ends.

Which is probably why I’ve always thought of myself as a mutt.

In a way, we’re all mutts — a collection of nationalities, traditions, and cultures. Even those of royal blood inevitably encounter traitors, vagrants, and heretics in their lineage. None of us is “purebred,” because no one is pure. Somewhere along the way, there is a Pap Duran in your history, a dark closet with secrets that, you hope to God, doesn’t hold a child.

The Church, I’ve learned, is very much the same.

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Frozen Heart by Sephirothsdx on Deviant Art

“Write for your audience.”

This is common knowledge among authors, a staple of advice at most writer’s conferences. Know your audience. Write to their tastes. If they like certain tropes, certain cover designs, certain characters types, certain resolutions, even certain length stories, write to them. Give them what they want.

When it comes to writing to market, this is good advice. But what if your market, the audience you’re aiming at, is frigid?

Surrealist, Franz Kafka, once said something that’s always stuck with me,

“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”

Apart from the stark imagery this quote evokes, there’s two reasons why I love this approach to writing. One, it accurately describes the human condition. Our hearts are like a “frozen sea within us.” Secondly, it perfectly describes the impact a tale can have upon us. A good story can be like an “axe,” pummeling the frosty shell that entombs our heart.

Of course, not everyone views their audience as existing in such a grim state. For the most part, it’s right (and accurate) to see our readers as good people who simply want to be entertained, thrilled, chilled, or inspired. Stories needn’t always have some profound existential aim. However, underlying our desire for simple entertainment is a human condition that often requires more drastic intervention.

Interestingly, one of the reasons that Jesus claimed to speak in parables was because of His listeners spiritual density. Parables were a way to bypass their calloused intellect and/or biases and stir something deeper, more primal. (I go into more detail about this in THIS POST about “parabolic storytelling.”)

This is one of the reasons I’m so fond of Flannery O’Connor. The Southern Gothicist was known for stories that shocked the senses, tales containing stark caricatures and awful irony. O’Connor’s approach to storytelling was borne out of her perspective of human nature. She writes,

“The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” — Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, Occasional Prose

O’Connor saw some of her audience as “hostile,” not to her, per se, but to her underlying “beliefs.” Her readers were nearly deaf and blind, spiritually speaking. Their hearts were a frozen sea. Their moral intuition, like all of us, had been calloused by selfishness and self-righteousness. As such, O’Connor wasn’t intent to simply entertain her readers. She wanted to “shock” them and “shout” at them using “large and startling figures.” She wrote for the Audience of the Frozen Sea. Which means she wrote with an axe.

Not everyone writes with an axe. Some write with a scalpel, others with a sparkler or a paint brush. It all depends on who you write for. How you view your audience determines what instrument you choose to write with. Me? I tend to write for the Audience of the Frozen Sea.  Which means I always keep an axe in my arsenal.

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When You’re the Oddball in a Room of Geeks

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Sometimes I don’t think I fit in with geeks. Which could be a problem when you attend conferences made up of them. That realization first struck me during breakfast my second day at Realm Makers 2017. For the record, I had a fantastic time there! But I must admit feeling a little awkward on some […]

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Requiem 4 Now Available for Kindle

My latest story, a sci-fi/horror novelette entitled Requiem 4, is now available on Kindle. Think Lovecraft meets Spectral. Here’s a short blurb: *** Graviton Cemetery—the biggest, oldest, most haunted graveyard in the world. And Requiem 4 is here to clean things up. In a dystopian, war-torn future where a godless global network reprograms the masses […]

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No — Wonder Woman is Not an Example of “Biblical Womanhood.” (Or, Are Christians Too Eager to Find Jesus In Pop Culture?)

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I recently stopped subscribing to a Christian podcast on films when, during a two-part examination of John Carpenter’s horror classic The Thing, an entire show was dedicated to examining racial themes in the movie. Huh? The Thing? The podcasters asked questions like, Was there subliminal racism in the casting of one black actor as the cook? How did the […]

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The Importance of Implicit (v. Explicit) Christian Content in Fiction

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Later this week, I’ll be teaching a class at a writers conference entitled “Writing for the General Market.” This is a Christian writers conference, thus the emphasis on the general market as opposed to the “Christian” market. When I officially began pursuing a career as a writer back in 2003 /04, the Christian market was […]

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Science Fiction’s God Problem

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One of the most recent theatrical trailers for Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant includes this ominous tagline: “The path to paradise begins in hell.” In an an article at ScreenRant entitled “Alien: Covenant Tackles Science and Religion,” the author notes: That Covenant will be exploring themes of religious beliefs and faith has been clear for some time, going […]

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“Children of Men” — Feminist Agitprop or Pro-Life Film?

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I recently dared to suggest on social media that Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale was feminist propaganda. Interestingly enough, I received pushback from two different sides — Those who objected to it being  portrayed as feminist propaganda and those who defended it AS feminist propaganda. The series is being hailed as a dire warning against totalitarianism, […]

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“Saint Death” is Nominated for the Alliance Award

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Saint Death, second book in my Reagan Moon, paranoir series, has made it to the semi-final round of the Alliance Award voting. The Alliance Award is sponsored by Realm Makers and is a reader’s choice award, which makes the nomination even more special. In order to vote, you must be familiar with 2 of the […]

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