Unveiled

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You are the One from all eternity
who joined the fabric of stars and seas,
rolled out the carpet of galaxies
yet all the brilliance of the newborn universe
is but one flicker of Your majesty

Still the height of Your design
was in humble, glorious, image-bearing man
though You knew he’d come to lead a rebel band
Your curse would slash through skies and land
Our eyes are dimmed and hearts are stone,
so a glimpse of holiness made the prophet know
before the Throne, we’re undone and damned

But like a knife that opens the mother’s womb
You cut through time and God was born
in Bethlehem, with no cradle or room
You taught repentance and a kingdom coming soon
but the way is through the cross and tomb

Come behold the Lord of law and grace
Veiled in flesh, the Son unveiled the Father’s face
the God who judges is the One who saves
You will strip the darkness in an unbroken blaze
and resurrection glory will ignite that day

 

“For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.'” Isaiah 46:9-10

 

Photo by Jordan Wozniak on Unsplash

Top Reads of 2018: The Shortlist

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The last two years I summed up my top reads in three fiction and three non-fiction picks. The amount of reading I did took a dip in 2018, and a good portion of it was caught up in re-reading old books. I also find that I’ve become increasingly picky and impatient, so I’m much more comfortable with discontinuing a book that doesn’t hold my attention 1-2 chapters in. As a result, I only read three new non-fiction books, and while they were all good, it seems pointless to do a top three out of three options.

Instead, I just chose my top four overall. Coincidentally, each of them represents a different genre, so perhaps something will pique your interest. Maybe this means I’m reading more broadly (see, Mom? I’m not only reading books about made-up-worlds now), though I need to read more in general. Here’s hoping I stick it through some good, meaty books this year. Please send recommendations!

1. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

I wrote about this book briefly in my post on WWII historical fiction. Two sisters fight for their family and country in Nazi-occupied France. Isabelle is the fiery, rebellious one, deadset on joining the Resistance. Vianne begins as a fragile woman, even more helpless after her husband goes off to war. But the war comes to her home too, and she must find the strength to protect the ones she loves. Usually, war stories are about the men on the front. This is a heartbreaking, beautiful story of the women at home, and the quiet battles they had to fight. Kristin Hannah shines a light on humanity at its best and worst through a complex cast of characters.

“Men tell stories. Women get on with it. For us it was a shadow war. There were no parades for us when it was over, no medals or mentions in history books. We did what we had to during the war, and when it was over, we picked up the pieces and started our lives over.”

2. The Absurdity of Unbelief by Jeffrey D. Johnson

This is my one non-fiction pick, and it’s a little-known gem. Johnson sets quite a task for himself – he runs through a series of non-Christian worldview systems (naturalism, evolution, existentialism, postmodernism, non-theistic religions, Islam, Judaism, Unitarianism, and more) and drives home each one’s core fallacies and inconsistencies. He then proceeds to present the case for Christianity, and why it is the only believable, consistent worldview of reality, answering the fundamental questions of, “What is real?” “What is right?” and “What is true?”

Funny enough, last night at Bible Study, we were discussing  how no airtight argument can definitively prove God’s existence. Many of them are convincing, but you can still poke a hole somewhere. The reality is, there’s no “neutral” starting ground where we can lay aside our biases and start stacking the evidence on both sides. We all come with our presuppositions. The Bible doesn’t make a case for God by a string of arguments – it begins with the presupposition that God exists, and all creation is loudly declaring that truth.

That said, Johnson’s book is formidable. He employs his God-given gifts of logic, reason and biblical knowledge to make an extremely convincing case for Christianity. It’s not perfect, and some chapters are weaker than others, but it’s a great apologetic primer. And he ends with a call to repent and believe. Read this if you’re a Christian. Read it if you’re a skeptic.

“With this in mind, the biblical worldview offers three basic truths that are necessary to a cohesive system of thought. These truths are logic, moral distinctions, and God. These things are inherent because they are necessary conditions preprogrammed within our thinking so that we can construct meaningful thought and cognitive beliefs as we interact with the external world.”

3. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I’m late to this bandwagon, and I was very hesitant about climbing on. I hate gratuitous sex, violence, swearing, and darkness. And I warn you, this book has some very disturbing parts of all the aforementioned elements, so I do not recommend this to everyone. I honestly expected to hate this book, or at least, find it way over-hyped. And maybe it is over-hyped, but it’s also chillingly good – in the excellent writing, the way Flynn digs deep into the characters, and in the mother of all plot twists. I haven’t read a ton of thrillers, but my sense is, you don’t usually get the whole package like that.

I won’t bother with a summary, since you probably know what this story is about. Imagine your worst nightmare of a toxic marriage. Then triple the catastrophe. Honestly, I wonder if Gillian Flynn’s husband should be concerned. I’m sure she could be a normal, nice lady, but the fact that she had it in her to write this story so well … well, I’d be worried.

Anyway, it was very well done, but I probably wouldn’t re-read it because it was a gruesome picture of depravity. If you’re sensitive, I repeat, do not attempt.

“I’ve literally seen it all, and the worst thing, the thing that makes me want to blow my brains out, is: The secondhand experience is always better. The image is crisper, the view is keener, the camera angle and the soundtrack manipulate my emotions in a way reality can’t anymore. I don’t know that we are actually human at this point, those of us who are like most of us, who grew up with TV and movies and now the Internet. If we are betrayed, we know the words to say; when a loved one dies, we know the words to say. If we want to play the stud or the smart-ass or the fool, we know the words to say. We are all working from the same dog-eared script. It’s a very difficult era in which to be a person, just a real, actual person, instead of a collection of personality traits selected from an endless Automat of characters.”

4. Grisha Verse Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo

Yes, I cheated, because a trilogy is three books. But it’s really one continuous story, and I can’t pick a favorite out of them. Finally, some YA fiction that takes a step above the heap of mediocrity. I burned through this series in a matter of days while traveling. Alina is a poor girl with nothing but her handsome and more capable best friend, Mal. That is, until she awakens a dormant power within herself that has the potential to save their kingdom from war. She is taken away to train as a Grisha, the magical elite force led by the enigmatic Darkling.

So yes, it has your usual YA tropes, but I have nothing against them if they’re used well. It’s an epic tale of adventure, suspense, intrigue/politics, and romance in an exotic Russian-inspired setting, and Bardugo writes with a vivid, poetic style that’s not overkill. She also pulls off some pretty slick plot twists. While I’m rather indifferent to Alina and Mal (they’re likable enough, but not outstanding), I love the ensemble of characters Bardugo builds over the course of the series. It’s rare to find a good villain in YA lit, but I have to say, hers takes the cake. The story follows the typical fantasy arc in many ways, but does so with heart, high stakes, and a dash of humor: all the things I like best.

“This was his soul made flesh, the truth of him laid bare in the blazing sun, shorn of mystery and shadow. This was the truth behind the handsome face and the miraculous powers, the truth that was the dead and empty space between the stars, a wasteland peopled by frightened monsters.”

 

Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

A Quiet, Creative Journey

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Happy 2019! I know I’ve done a dismal job of blogging regularly, which I will try to improve upon. (I know what Yoda says about trying, but I have commitment issues and a day job). I did a fair amount of story writing last year but most of it was offline, and I prefer to use this space for actual writing instead of updates on what I’m writing. Unless something huge happens, i.e. I’m going to publish, I’m joining the Avengers, etc. However, since I’ve been quiet around here for awhile and we’re at the start of another year, I thought it’d be fitting to share a few highlights and reflections on the journey.

So, the highlights:

My science fiction / space opera novella, Pilot Tide, was a finalist in Rooglewood’s Five Poisoned Apples Snow White retelling contest. Even though I didn’t win, I got some great feedback from the judges, and it was just a fun story to write. I’m grateful to these contests for pushing me to create, with a deadline and a word limit. I’m also keeping an eye out for what I can do with this piece, because I don’t want it to die on my hard drive.

I published my first-ever piece in print and received an author payment for it! (Never mind that the $$ was about the cost of a salad where I live, and I promptly spent it plus some on buying print copies). While I prefer novels, I’ve come across some impressive flash fiction and I wanted to try my hand at it. I wish I discovered Splickety earlier; I just snuck into their last issue here. But it’s been reborn as Havok, an online flash fiction zine with a seasonal themes and a daily story. Check them out, especially if you like speculative fiction.

I also finished my first-ever novel-length story, a fantasy, at 98,000 words. (I was curious how that stacked up against typical novel lengths, so as a point of comparison, I found the first and shortest Harry Potter book was 77,000 words and Order of the Phoenix was the longest at 257,000 words. Maybe that one could’ve used more editing). I vacillate between thinking I wrote something half-decent and thinking it’s total rubbish. Regardless, I’ve started the process of querying agents, which is like an alien world I’m learning about.

My current project is expanding my Beauty and the Beast novella retelling, a sci-fi political drama, into a novel. It’s turning out to be a pretty unabashed mashup of things I love, i.e. literary references, Mission Impossible-esque suspense scenes, sarcastic androids, lots of Chinese food, the enemies-to-friends-and-maybe-more trope, and space. I feel like I’m just having a personal nerd-fest writing this.

All in all, some of my key takeaways:

Half the battle of writing is perseverance. I made a resolution in 2018 to finish that novel after tinkering with it for a few years. I’m done now. It may still not see the light of day, but at least now, there’s a non-zero probability it might. I write very slowly, and it can be hard to see the glorious end (it felt that way a few chapters in, at the halfway mark, and even coming to the final chapter). But every bit is progress. I learned to think of each chapter as a meaningful vignette that could stand on its own: each one needed to have its own kind of impact, whether it was in quiet character development or high-stakes action. In that way, each chapter felt like the birth of a mini-story rather than a mere tick mark in a long slog to the finish line.

The discipline of writing demands balance. As much as I joke that I’d throw in the towel on my current career if I could publish a bestseller, I don’t think I would. I’d go crazy writing full-time. I write in spurts – most recently, I spent an afternoon at the library, lost in a short story I was working on. If someone stole my stuff, I may not have noticed. Then, I go a few weeks without time or motivation to write. And I’m grateful that I can’t sit around, paralyzed, waiting for inspiration to strike. I need to go to work and be productive. I enjoy writing as side pursuit, where it’s one, but not the only, outlet for creative energy. Also, I have found that as much as good books have taught me about sharp writing and human hearts, I have learned more through experiencing life in the world – through soul-baring hours of conversation, tasting foreign cultures, navigating office politics. More than handbook theories, a real, earthy zest for life gives a writer a fuller voice and better stories.

Everyone says writers need thick skin because you’ll get a lot of rejections. Honestly, I think stepping out your front door in our crazy world requires thick skin. But point taken. Rejection always stings, but I probably haven’t felt that to its greatest extent because 1) I haven’t submitted that much writing to that many places, and 2) I’m not depending on this to pay any bills. It’s less the rejections, and more my limitations, that have been teaching me humility. It takes maturity and plain life experience to be capable of writing certain topics well. When I was working on my fantasy novel, there were many moments I felt like I was writing out of my depth, wrestling with how to handle certain themes or relationships and do them justice. Give me twenty more years of life on earth and I could probably do this better. A realistic acknowledgment of what I’m capable of and not is humbling. Though I would never have the audacity to say (or believe!) that I have some story or idea inside me (an average, twenty-something girl who used to win a lot at Never Have I Ever) that is genius, I find my inherent pride grasping for that greatness.

But for the most part, I’d be pretty happy if I wrote something enjoyable and not cringe-worthy. Plus points if it makes you think a bit or inspires you a smidgen. I’m not going to be Tolkien, or Lewis, or Jane Austen. Even a hundred years won’t fix that, and that’s totally fine.

In the end, I write for the thrill of it. A few years ago, I wrote this in my journal: “I once used words to soothe my loneliness. I once used words to prove my worth. Today, I want to use words to set the world ablaze with the glory of eternal things.”

Okay, I occasionally get overly dramatic.

But I still resonate with that. I have learned that our employment of words is a stewardship. Like an adept swordsman can use his skill to either cut down or defend the weak, a wordsmith wields similar power. Words weave stories, and of the many reasons I am convinced about the truth of the Gospel of Christ, one of the main ones is the power of story. We did not come from a vacuum, sprung into a meaningless existence. God has made us for Himself, and the stories we tell, though tarnished by our sinfulness and framed in the context of the Curse, still echo His eternal story: creation, fall, redemption, renewal. Some of our stories are more original than others, but they are ultimately all remixes. Only God creates ex nihilo, and we are imaging his inexhaustible creativity in our finite imaginations, building from the dirt and words and reality He has given to us.

So what’s your story?

 

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Lonely Sparrow

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Lonely sparrow
chiseled by a hard knife, like the one that split Job’s world
at
    the
        seams
and cut ridges of holiness on a broken cistern,
where glory poured in.
I see you, alone in the crowd,
melting into the shadow
your mouth smiles: a fragile pencil line
but your eyes say
how long, o Lord?
as you melt into the shadows, retreating
from sideways looks and rote theology
into your shell, with a rabble of ghosts.
Joy wrung dry, like an ironed sponge,
loosens your grip on this earth, a dim orb,
slippery between your fingers
ready for release.
Suffering has burned the blinders,
the dross from your eyes, so you see
more brightly,
the jasper walls and golden city
the King in His unveiled glory.

You have a bittersweet blessing.

Your frail shoulders bruise beneath these burdens
and I oft lack words and wisdom and divine lovingkindess
but there is enough for you
in our God enfleshed,
who blistered His feet on the hot sand of Samaria
and made His dwelling with us,
a tabernacle inside our unholy ruins.
Lonely sparrow
not one falls that He does not know,
He numbers the hairs of your head,
So take heart
He has overcome the world.

Photo by Somin Khanna on Unsplash

Solitude & Camaraderie

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The winding highways and streetlights after dark tease a quiet magic, an unnerving freedom to fly through the night on rubber and metal. A universe of concrete, oxygen and stars slosh against my windshield. I am small and insignificant, a flicker and a breath. But it feels like a whole world lives in here, with four empty leather seats around me, and a rotation of voices from my podcasts: my favorite preachers unearthing Scripture’s gems and ordinary people telling true stories. The searing conviction, the tragedies, the comedy—artifacts of our souls, evidence that God stamped His image on us.

It’s warm and lonely inside, but in a rich and sweet, not sad, way. Sometimes, I’ll blast Taylor Swift and think of boys from days gone by. Sometimes, I’ll mute it all and sing quietly to my Savior. How great Thou art.

//

Dusk falls silently, the bright golden sunrays peeling off my studio walls. Distant birds and children fill a lazy summer soundtrack, but I’m lost in pulp and ink. Only the need for light forces me to resurface and realize nightfall swept a few hours away with it.

The world seems dim after the vibrant strokes of my weather-worn book. It’s like waking from a dream—or falling asleep. I can’t decide which.

//

I’m one of the few traveling alone on this flight—makes sense, since there’s nothing at the destination but resorts. I don’t mind, though. It just means plenty of open aisle seats when I board.

I’m already thinking of tropical weather, beaches, food, and of course, the family I only see a few times a year now. But there is something giddy in just the anticipation, surrounded by strangers, hurtling through the clouds. A few more hours of aloneness, of looking forward, of the almost but not yet.

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Two hours pass by in a flurry as we reminisce, the line snaking forward slowly. Thank God for friends who make wait times feel like nothing. By the time we buckle in, my soul is refreshed though my feet and back hurt. No one is laughing at the ride operator’s joke. Then the music plays, we free fall, and everyone’s screaming with happy terror.

//

It’s past midnight but we’re wide-eyed and alert, forgetting Monday morning is creeping up on us. Four hours in, and we’re finally in the end game. Bated breath before every die roll, we fluctuate between tense silences and energetic bargaining and wheedling, a bright huddle around Catan while the rest of the world sleeps.

//

The DVD remained untouched all night because even introverted girls can talk forever at sleepovers. When you’re a good listener, you find everyone has good stories to tell. We are made for them.

//

We’ve found all the best conference rooms on our floor, hidden away from prying eyes. Behind closed doors, we’re a haven of honesty and laughter in the well-oiled wheels of the corporate machine. My co-conspirators share a horrifying secret: our prestigious academic records and resumes produced zero ladder-climbing ambitions.

We’re dreaming of the day we open bakeries and write bestsellers. Please spare us the manufactured goals and ten-year career plans.

//

We vacillate between long monologues—a stream of feelings, dreams, prayers, and reflections—and comfortable silences. I’m not sure whose awake and whose asleep as we’re all curled up in our seats, watching the parking lot empty out around us.

We are fragile souls, prone to wander, prone to break. But I listen to the quiet strength in their voices, hear the conviction of faith in their words, see the undeniable grace of God in their lives, and I know He is holding onto us.

Give me solitude over empty chatter. Give me souls we can knit together. Give me no less nor no more than I need to know, that I am made and fulfilled in Christ alone.

The First Coming

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The kingdom broke into quiet towns

—Bethlehem, Nazareth, Galilee—

with Sabbath scandals and silenced demons

The Uncreated One slipped into

time through a virgin womb,

soiled his feet on earth-beyond-Eden:

the garden poisoned by the serpent

dipped in thorns, decay, crooked hearts

He came,

not in the image of man-made idols

but in the shape of Scripture:

suffering servant, man of sorrows,

acquainted with grief

He came,

among a people with priests and temple

but far from God.

The kingdom broke into sinful souls

outside the holy city, on Passover,

when the shadow descended

the blood of the last Lamb fell on Golgotha,

swept over the doorposts of repentant hearts

—“It is finished”—

and death will pass away like a dream

Canary in the Media Mine

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Is it irony or self-awareness that much of Silicon Valley is enamored with a show about techno-paranoia? The genius of Black Mirror lies in its presentation of dystopias that are terrifyingly close to reality. Each episode combines technology that’s almost arrived with the dark tendencies of human nature to produce a shocking world, but one it seems we’re on the cusp of. I just did a google search of the show, and the first headline read, “Black Mirror’s ‘Nosedive’ episode is about to become reality in China.” Black Mirror is like a canary in the media mine, signaling the dangers of where technology could lead society before it descends upon us.

I’ve only watched a few episodes, and I don’t go around recommending it. If you haven’t seen it, I don’t exaggerate when I say many of the episodes are chock full of immorality and baldly disturbing. It’s also not what I’d call entertaining. But it is thought-provoking.

The episodes take a familiar, relatable premise (like social media ratings, video game escapism, online dating) down dark and twisted paths. This is what could happen… and all things considered, its creative and believable. While most critics applaud the show for cleverly exposing the danger of technology misuse, I think Black Mirror does more than that, whether intentionally or not. More than pointing out how social media or memory scanners could wreak havoc, it exposes the darkness of the human heart. Technology is just an enabler.

Take the Nosedive episode. Lacie lives in a world where people rate each other based on each interaction they have. Your average rating affects your job, ability to buy a home, and could even send you to jail if you drop too low. Talk about incentive to practice fake smiling and friendliness all the time (which she does). Lacie is obsessed with getting her rating up to move into her dream home, but a series of unfortunate events send her rating spiraling down. It’s a messed up world that doesn’t feel too far away, with rating Uber/Lyft drivers, pandering for Likes and Follows on Instagram … who’s to say ‘social credit’ won’t take a more prominent role in a society dominated by social media?

But behind this world is the same reality of human nature. There is nothing new under the sun. We’ve always wanted to be liked by others, to be on the highest rung of the social ladder. Read Jane Austen! No one had a rating associated with their name, but people were fundamentally the same. There’s a public face you present to garner favor, especially among the elite. Women weren’t chasing 5/5 stars on an app, but they were chasing the wealthiest man, the most luxurious lifestyle, admiration from others, ultimately for the same purposes. What Black Mirror did was recognize that innate nature, and placed it in a new infrastructure enabled by technology.

One more example: the Crocodile episode (this one is really bleak and violent). In her young and stupid days, Mia helps her friend Rob cover up a hit-and-run where he was behind the wheel. Years later, Rob wants to confess, but Mia has a successful career and family, and she doesn’t want to dig up that past – so she kills Rob. Then she witnesses a roadside accident (a self-driving pizza truck hits someone). An insurance agent comes knocking with a device that can replay memories, but that means exposing her murder of Rob … which leads her to kill the insurance agent, and then the insurance agent’s family.

(I told you it’s disturbing.)

Crocodile addresses a regular theme in Black Mirror: the invasion of privacy. Technology has turned everyone’s eyes into potential surveillance cameras that can be replayed. It’s meant to be used for good, but this episode shows a case where it goes extremely poorly as it pushes Mia to kill more and more in order to cover up her earlier crimes. But again, the fundamental issue isn’t with the Recaller technology. Mia is hellbent on protecting her self-interest at any cost to others. This is the darkness of the human heart. Sure, the technology exacerbated the situation, but the point is, her capacity for murder out of self-protection existed long before she was triggered.

We do face unique challenges today with the advancement of technology. Its moving at a pace where policies can’t keep up, and they often come retroactively and always imperfectly. There is a legitimate fear about what our tech can do in the wrong hands. But the reality is, no one is trustworthy. We’re all fallen people. Ironically, in a time where the culture denies original sin and validates self-worth and individual goodness, a show like Black Mirror isn’t just sounding a warning about technology, but signaling the sinfulness of our own hearts.

 

Photo by Jeremy Yap on Unsplash

Battle for Humanity: WWII Historical Fiction

I’ve always considered myself a fantasy/sci-fi buff, but I’m beginning to think I jumped on that bandwagon too hastily. Speculative fiction still makes up a large chunk of my all-time favorite books, but its a very particular brand of the genre. I was all in with classic fantasy since Narnia and Lord of the Rings shaped my love for reading, but I’ve come across few fantasy novels since then that have captivated me. Many feel like duller versions of Tolkien and Lewis, recycled with weirder names. My sci-fi fascination started with Star Wars, which was film-based, and that primarily led me to read…Star Wars novels. An embarrassing number of them. I began to realize the hardcore fans of these genres geeked out about things like intricate magical systems, crazy planetary environments, or midichlorian counts (which is from Star Wars, and I didn’t really care about them). I just loved the characters and the heart, but I don’t want to slog through pages about a world’s terrain.

On the flip side, I always thought historical fiction was boring. Real world, no thanks. But after finishing my latest read, I realized how many of these books I’ve come to love, especially in the last few years. More specifically, a common thread emerged: I kept stumbling across great World War II historical fiction without even looking for them.

Here are five I recommend, in no particular order:

  • The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah
    Two sisters fight for their family and country in Nazi-occupied France. Isabelle is fiery, made for the Resistance. Vianne thinks she’s fragile, but she’s made from the fire.
  • All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
    A blind French girl and a German boy each try to survive the war. On different sides, their stories eventually collide.
  • The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
    Death narrates this story about a girl in Germany who loves books so much she steals them.
  • Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein
    Two British girls, best friends and soldiers, crash land in France. One is captured by the Nazis, and both will go to any length to save each other.
  • From Sand and Ash, by Amy Harmon
    It’s a tale of star-crossed lovers: Angelo and Eva were raised together as family, but he will become a priest, and she is wanted Jewish woman.

Each of these stories has the things I love about fantasy/sci-fi: characters I care about, a lot of heart, good fighting evil in the face of terrible odds, adventure, suspense, and fabulous writing. Even more, none of these books conclude with a pretty bow and happily ever after. They don’t conclude in despair, but they certainly are not sorrow-free. They look at WWII through various angles, but the war is integral to each story. The stakes are high, and the losses tug at your heart, especially when you remember the reality of this devastation isn’t so far behind us.

I think there are many reasons WWII produces such compelling stories, not least of them being that many are based on real people and heroes that emerged. (I used to have a bias against biographies as boring too, but there are some excellent ones coming from this era). There have been many wars fought, even since then. But WWII stands out not only in its scale, but the mostly universal agreement that it was not just a war fought for resources or politics, but a war fought against evil. Sure, there was nationalism and politics at work on the global level, but there were ordinary people risking their lives for others, doing what was right in spite of the consequences. And we recognize how pivotal the outcome of the war was. If you’re familiar with The Man in the High Castle (either Phillip Dick’s weird book or Amazon’s equally-bleak-but-less-weird show), it depicts an alternate history, where the Axis powers won WWII. It’s a world of shadows and fear, where the Nazi flag flies over America, and you can be shot on spot for being the wrong race or saying the wrong thing.

I find that these stories, maybe in an unconscious way, stand in defiance against the relativistic culture today. How do we have the moral authority to call the Nazi regime evil? Tolerance is a pretty weak flag to wave in decrying such hatred. There must be an absolute standard of good and evil—else if each of us can have our own equally valid truths, how can anyone claim higher moral ground? There must be inviolable dignity to each human life, which is why genocide is such an atrocity. We cannot imbue value into human life just by claiming it, and there’s no reason to believe we have any if we’re just evolved, accidental atoms.

There are complicated people in these books. A German soldier who is kind to his country’s enemies, a Catholic priest who falls in love, and otherwise gentle women who take life to protect another. I find myself more drawn to them than the unblemished good guys of fantasyland. Not because I disbelieve in objective morality, but because they reflect the reality of our broken world and broken humanity. We are made in the image of God, with eternity on our hearts, and an understanding of justice and goodness imprinted on our conscience. But we have fallen far from Eden. In every great character, there is real weakness and flaw, and yet also a grasping for virtue—to lay down their life for another, to die for a worthy cause, or to shelter an orphan. In this tension and collision, we find a picture of the Fall, of Redemption, and the New Creation we long for.

Know of any other great WWII reads (or any great reads)? I’m always open to recommendations!

Photo by Jacob Valerio on Unsplash

The Victim-Villain

“Art is a lie which makes us realize the truth.” —Picasso

Note: I’m not always on top of pop culture, but in case you’re even more behind than me, this post does feature spoilers about The Last Jedi, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1, and Harry Potter. (The last two probably aren’t worth mentioning, but I sometimes pick up a series years later…)

I googled “greatest villains” and, unsurprisingly, came up with few attractive results. Hollywood isn’t casting many classically handsome men or supermodels into these roles. Our villains are often caricatures, humanity’s worst infused into a single individual. The more cruel and vile, the more memorable. This is especially the case in fantasy and science fiction, so the bad guy can be set up against the protagonist in the representative clash between good and evil. There was nothing redeemable in Sauron or Palpatine, making them an easy rallying point for the forces of darkness.

But it feels like our stories are shifting away from such clear paradigms. I’m a big Star Wars fan, and one who loved The Last Jedi (but we can debate that another time). Take Kylo Ren as an example. I did not like him in his debut appearance in The Force Awakens—whiny, uncontrolled, wannabe Darth Vader who turned to the Dark Side because his father was a letdown and he couldn’t get his family history straight. He felt like a weak imitation of Vader, an all-time classic villain. But then The Last Jedi happened, and his character became compelling. He’s still a megalomaniac murderer, but you learn his story and see flashes of humanity, something notably absent with Vader until the very end. Instead of wanting to see Kylo destroyed, I wanted to see him redeemed.

He’s not the only villain that’s shy of pure evil. We are seeing the lines blurred more and more. Fictional villains are a reflection of our times, and there’s a common thread defining those from the postmodern era.

The 21st century villain is conflicted, damaged, and sympathetic—to an extent. Mostly, he is victim of his circumstances. He is made into who he is because of external influences, not inherent wickedness.

Kylo was unwillingly burdened with his famous bloodline, and to top it all off, his uncle almost tried to kill him. Rey captures his victimhood when she confronts Luke with the haunting question: “Did you do it? Did you create Kylo Ren?”

I wouldn’t call Severus Snape a straight out villain, but he is morally ambiguous. And perhaps you can blame it on his rough past: unhappy home life, unpopular at school, and the love of his life marries his childhood enemy.

Then you have Grant Ward from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Ouch. I did not take his Hydra reveal well. After he’s exposed, we catch a glimpse of the events that shaped him. His mentor Garrett gave him a second chance at life and molded him into a cold double agent. Garrett brokered an irrevocable loyalty in his protege. Ward isn’t without feelings for the S.H.I.E.L.D team he betrays, and he doesn’t genuinely believe in Hydra’s mission, but like he tells Raina, “I owe Garrett everything.” I give credit to Marvel—he may be the most complex villain I’ve seen them create, even though I can’t forgive them for it.

Drew Taylor’s review of Maleficent sums up this phenomenon: “In 2014, the Mistress of All Evil is just another victim.”

I have mixed feelings about all this. On the one hand, I appreciate the complexity of character and depth it gives to the story. Snape is my favorite Harry Potter character, but that doesn’t mean I endorse him as any paragon of virtue. The stakes are higher when I feel a stir of sympathy for the villain—I’ll be hooked and even more invested in the outcome. I’m all for giving the bad guy a compelling, believable backstory because people aren’t just monsters for the sake of being monsters. The Joker aside, most people have deeper motives than wanting to watch the world burn.

At the same time, the tragic villain trend may be a reflection and a reinforcement of our culture’s softening towards calling evil evil. Certainly, people are complex and flawed, and our stories should explore that. There are perplexing moral dilemmas and our characters should wrestle with them—they can’t all be swept away by a cliche. But perhaps we are also seeing the line between right and wrong, good and evil, blurring and fading from the collective conscience.

The “gray areas” are ripe playgrounds for storytelling, but there is no gray without the black and white.

For a postmodern generation, the phenomenon makes sense. Our culture is sweeping away belief in objective truth, so who is to say what the authority is on right and wrong? The loudest voice, a temporary cultural consensus? Morality does not fit consistently into a postmodern framework, and that becomes evident in our stories. The lines may blur, but we are unable to escape some imprint of the cosmic battle between good and evil raging around us.

And even if you cling to the refrain that society is the monster and all of us victims, evil shouldn’t find excuses. So I say to the postmodern villain: give us your sob story, let us sympathize, but bear the responsibility of your choices. You may not be heartless, but there’s nothing redemptive in your victimhood.

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash