vibrant crimson, fragile grey
flesh and spirit divinely knit
but a breath away from the grave
formed from fresh earth-dust
but pressed with the image of God
an olive shoot warmed in summer’s gold
but swept away by a single frost
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.
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 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
not in the image of man-made idols
but in the shape of Scripture:
suffering servant, man of sorrows,
acquainted with grief
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
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.
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:
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!
“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.
In the breath between birth and dust
we bare our messy souls
through fumbling words
wrestling with limits—of language and finitude
an unearthly power rings
in our thin, trembling throats
These silent walls listen, with the angels,
as we kneel, scraped knees and bruised hearts
before the Alpha and Omega,
our Abba Father, who hears our speech
and our silence
Because He once carved an awful mercy
into Roman wood and the blood of God
so we might come near
gathered together in winter’s cold
a reprieve from a world drenched in mockery,
we whisper the names of friends
and enemies, of frailties and fears,
of sorrow and joy and sehnsucht—
our naked hearts find a voice before the throne
On a canvas of black space and burning stars,
we find a cradle of eternal warmth
Happy New Year! I’ll try to be more disciplined about posting regularly this year. I just need to make the time and kick the perfectionism. We’ll see how it goes. For now, I thought I’d share my favorite reads from last year!
1. Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl by N.D. Wilson
If you’ve read Tim Keller’s The Reason for God, I almost see Wilson’s book as the poetic, sassy version of it. It’s like an extended Psalm, standing in wonder at God’s created world and man, the pinnacle of his creation. It’s written with an understanding of our modern world, and casually dismantles the philosophical flaws our generation clings to, doing so with humor and flair. Also, his mastery of words is magnificent. Example:
“The Problem Part Two: The world is rated R, and no one is checking IDs. Do not try to make it G by imagining the shadows away. Do not try to hide your children from the world forever, but do not pretend there is no danger. Train them. Give them sharp eyes and bellies full of laughter. Make them dangerous. Make them yeast, and when they’ve grown, they will pollute the shadows.”
2. Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi
I heard Nabeel’s name in Christian circles for awhile, but I finally picked up his book the same year he passed away. A year ago, I was telling a friend about an ongoing Gospel dialogue I was having, and she said it reminded her of Nabeel and David’s conversations. Curious, I started reading. Nabeel takes you deep into his world: of his Muslim upbringing, his religious devotion, his struggle with faith, and his conversion to Christianity. It’s intensely personal. His life is a testimony to the grace of God as well as a reminder that the cost of following Christ is high.
Note: I was a big fan of his friend David in the book. If you read this, you should check out David’s own testimony on YouTube. Blew my mind.
3. Why the Reformation Still Matters by Michael Reeves and Tim Chester
Protestants celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation last year, and I read this for a series our Bible Study is going through. It’s a clear and accessible book on the history and doctrines of the Reformation. Reeves and Chester draw clear lines of distinction between Reformed theology and Roman Catholicism, showing how the differences are not small, but go to the heart of the Gospel. A faithful and good reminder that we cannot cast truth aside in the name of tolerance.
1. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
I stumbled across this book randomly and it was incredible. I tend to think of the post-apocalyptic genre as zombie-infested, (boring/gory) lone survivor stories, and bleakly annihilationist. This subverted my expectations. Station Eleven is really about art and stories, but it takes place on the brink of civilization’s collapse. It draws one of its core themes from a Star Trek quote: “Survival is insufficient.” Even without electricity, Internet, or airplanes, a theater group is still traveling the country, performing Shakespeare. The world we take for granted is made beautiful in the eyes of those who have lost it.
2. From Sand and Ash by Amy Harmon
A lot of really good literature has come out of the WWII era. This is probably not a well-known one, but it’s beautifully written. At heart, it is a story of star-crossed lovers: two children raised together fall in love, but he becomes a Catholic priest, and she a persecuted Jew on the run. I’m not a big romance reader, but I appreciate how Harmon captures the danger of the times, the heartbreak, and the marvelous contrast of hope in the darkness.
3. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Another WII read that is well-known. This one climbed the ranks into one of my all-time favorites. I’m not sure what to say about it, but that it’s a beautiful story about goodness and humanity in a broken world. And Doerr’s writing is one of the best I’ve read in a long time.
we live in a world haunted by Eden:
half is ruled by logic
0s and 1s harnessed to make machines
binary codes flicker into modern idols
hooking the mechanical bloodstream to ours
like an IV drip
half is given to wonder
a man can explain his own reality
or call it all illusion
1+1=2 in academic truth but judge not
what a man calls his god
are we algorithms, brushing against each other?
accidental programs of A, G, C, and Ts
we live in a world haunted by Eden:
in ceaseless striving for purpose
yet drowning in self-addiction
a worshipper’s soul chafes against the lies
that cells and galaxies exploded
from an empty inkwell
and the ache for meaning is
a chemical misfire
is it love or mathematics?
functions never parameterized heartbreak
or taught a man to die for another.
Son of a warrior-king and his stolen wife,
bloodlines of sin and grace,
who’s God is untamed by man:
choosing Jacob over Esau,
the weak to shame the strong,
the wild branches grafted in.
Your renown sailed from Tyre to Sheba,
author of proverbs and poetry
architect of the temple
hands callused with ink and the cedars of Lebanon
labors of a heart wholly true—
yet how swift to fall from truth.
Wisdom cries aloud in the street
but you threw her off like a scandal
to embrace a harem and their gods
the ark, the cherubim, the Shekinah glory
forgotten, lost as the smoke of burnt offerings,
the blood blackened
the flame vanquished.
You spared a child from the knife,
yet carved a kingdom in two.
Your words taught men through ages,
but a bitter life taught you:
time is a splinter in the plane of eternity
and there is nothing new under the sun.
You did not need to know what a small blue orb
we spin on, to know it is all chasing wind
—wealth, wisdom, women—
the Preacher preaches,
but we are as deaf as a once-wise king.
What good is it to gain the world?
a Savior echoed, centuries later.
Son of a warrior-king and his stolen wife,
bookends of mercy mark your days,
who’s God is untamed by man:
you built Him a house,
though He built your bones,
you filled the Holy Place with sacred things,
and He tore the curtain.