Made for Fans: A Reflection on Endgame and The Last Jedi

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If you haven’t seen Avengers: Endgame, stop reading. Spoilers will follow!

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I don’t read the comics, but I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They built something magical over the last ten years, with a cast of oddball characters and films that crossed genres from space opera to spy thriller to high school dramas. The stories may continue indefinitely, but the curtains are closing on what (I predict) is the best run the MCU will have. I believe there’s plenty of potential to take existing and new characters in exciting directions, but the original cast of Avengers, helmed by Iron Man and Captain America, will be a tough one to top.

I went to see Endgame opening weekend, excited and somewhat surprised by how gushing the early reviews were. The expectations on this film were unbelievably high, and it had the difficult job of picking up after Infinity War’s mic drop and wrapping up the arcs of core characters. The opening sequence [spoilers are legitimately ahead so abort now], where Thor kills Thanos and there’s a five year time jump, reminded me of The Last Jedi in the subversion of expectations. (I could hear Luke’s voice: “This isn’t going to go the way you think.”) It felt like a concerted effort to make viewers realize this isn’t the movie they thought it would be. So, why was Endgame incredibly well-received, while The Last Jedi garnered so much backlash from fans (though critics applauded it as a brilliant film)?

Fan service? Pandering to the masses?

I don’t mean it as a negative thing. I loved Endgame. (But then, I’m a huge fan, and maybe it’s because I was pandered to…) While Endgame kicked off with an unlikely opening and came with its share of surprises, it undeniably was packed with throwbacks to fan favorites and easter eggs. They may or may not have really served the plot, but they certainly got cheers. There was a lot of speculation that they would employ time travel, which they did, and the time heist was a really fun romp, if you don’t think too hard about the logic. It did its job for the story (get the stones, reverse Thanos’ snap), but it definitely felt like a highlight reel of MCU’s Best Moments. Maybe minus Thor: Dark World. My favorite was Cap’s “hail hydra” in the elevator scene, reminiscent of Winter Soldier. Classic.

Endgame had it’s truly spectacular moments: when Cap gets Thor’s hammer, when the portals opened (Sam’s “on your left” was perfect) and everyone and their mother reappeared, and when Iron Man re-delivered his classic line before the snap. As apprehensive as I was about how they would close Tony and Steve’s stories, I thought the film did them both justice. In many ways, the two leading characters have had opposite arcs. Tony began as an egotistical, genius, playboy billionaire, and he ends with the greatest act of self-sacrifice. His off-script reveal of “I am Iron Man” at a press conference becomes a hero’s anthem. Steve began as a selfless soldier, a mascot of American ideal, and ran the serious risk of being a boring goody-two-shoes. His character arc has been one of my favorite parts of the Avengers’ stories. The core of who he is, selfless and noble, remains steadfast (and I love how they highlight that through his ability to wield Mjolnir). But he grows to be more than the face of a country or system that created him. When his convictions ran against the grain, he didn’t back down. His grand finale was a deeply personal choice, for himself rather than for the world. Just as “I am Iron Man” hearkened back to Iron Man 1, Steve’s ending closed the circle on Captain America 1. He’s a man of his word – and he made it back for his dance with Peggy.

However, Endgame was not the strongest Marvel movie in terms of story. It took a hit from having to close out many loose ends. In comparison, Infinity War pulled an even more massive cast together with a tighter plot. Endgame felt like it had multiple “starts” and multiple “endings.” Perhaps that was necessary and unavoidable, but it lacked the relentless forward drive of Infinity War and the narrative strength some of the best MCU films have brought, like Winter Soldier or Civil War. The core threading of the story was the time heist, which was more revisiting old turf than breaking new ground.

Unlike Endgame, The Last Jedi did no fan service. Or, if they tried to, it failed terribly. Star Wars fan were turned off, and a petition to remake and discount this as canon gathered steam (some people, like Steve and Nat, need to get a life). But I would argue, with general critical backing, that Last Jedi was a well-done story. The backlash wasn’t against a weak plot, but unmet expectations – Luke Skywalker wasn’t the hero we all wanted; Rey wasn’t a Skywalker, Solo, Kenobi, et al.; and Snoke was suddenly killed in the middle act of a trilogy. Personally, I loved the subverting of expectations: it’s a clever turn when you’re making a film that has every wild variation of Internet theories. People thought The Force Awakens was too similar to the original, but now they complain Last Jedi is not true to the spirit of Star Wars. You can’t have it both ways. Why not takes Star Wars down a new path?

Maybe it’s just me, but if you tell a solid story, I won’t complain because the characters didn’t become what I wanted. Luke is one of my favorite characters, and while I would’ve loved to see him bust off his island and take down the First Order, I believed in the direction they took his character. The nephew he trained turned into a monster, bringing back the shadow of Darth Vader. While The Force Awakens introduces Kylo Ren as the scion of the Skywalker-Solo bloodline, Last Jedi really explores the darkness that perpetually haunts the family, including Luke. In the originals, he was a hero, but he was also a whiny, impulsive farmboy. Now, he’s a legend to the next generation, but Last Jedi shows Rey and us that he’s human, and legends do not always match reality. This is a strange (maybe a stretch) comparison, but it reminds me of Go Set a Watchman, the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. People hated what Harper Lee did to Atticus. While Mockingbird made Atticus a nigh untouchable hero, this second book’s protagonist was Scout, and she has to mature and learn that her heroes are fallible. Same goes for Rey in Last Jedi. It’s on her to pick up the mantel now.

The Last Jedi was an impressive follow-on to the first film. It pulls the mask back and digs hard into the characters. The backdrop of the film, like every Star Wars story, is still this fight between the good guys and bad guys. But this one begins to explore those shades of grey. The old Jedi Order is gone, and Luke has no interest in reviving it. Whether or not Kylo will ultimately have a redemption arc, the exploration of the light tempting someone in the dark is more nuanced in his character than it was in Vader’s. And the connection between him and Rey was one of the highlights of the film. Do you really care that they took some liberties with “the Force” to add this to the story? Last Jedi made some audacious moves in how it handled Star Wars. I’m ready to sacrifice some technicalities of Force powers to indulge a better plot and characters.

There’s not much of a thesis to all this – it’s just a reflection on some big films, a minor (major?) geek-fest, and an informal exploration of the intriguing parallels between and vastly different reactions to Endgame and Last Jedi.  Endgame is smart on its formula. It makes a decided effort to be unpredictable while giving fans what they want. The great thing about most Marvel movies is they have a keen sense of self-awareness – while the heist plot has its holes, they make fun of time travel movies enough that you cut them some slack. It’s like saying, “Don’t take this too seriously. Just laugh with us and accept it.” So we do.

Thanks for the great ride, Disney. Let’s hope you close out Star War IX strong too.

 

Photo by James Pond 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

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

Inspiration 101

“Oh Captain my captain!”

I watched Dead Poet’s Society a few days ago for the second time, and it was even better than I remembered. Robin Williams was gold as Mr. Keating, and I didn’t fully appreciate before what a stellar supporting cast he had (Ethan Hawke? Josh Charles? well, I had no idea who these people were when I watched it in high school). The story builds up to a tragedy, but it is not without humor and triumph. It is innocent, but not naïve; philosophical, but accessible; wise, but not preachy.

It made me wonder about the stories that inspire us. What springboards something from unremarkable to unforgettable? I thought it was one of those hazy, hard-to-define things but I wanted to pinpoint a few key elements. You could say some stories just have it, a mysterious, magical X factor, but crafting a good tale isn’t like waving a wand. So I thought through my favorite books and films and came away with some common themes.

A hero who overcomes what we cannot

The stories that take a step beyond the plane of reality give themselves the liberty to create a larger-than-life protagonist: someone who can fight the battles and lead the charges that ordinary people can only dream of. They stand against seemingly insurmountable odds, and they sometimes stand alone (or at least vastly outnumbered). Basically, every superhero movie or fantasy novel where good defeats evil in a glorious spectacle.

They are the characters we will never be, but they move us with their valor and nobility. We may not have their abilities, but we can aspire to live with the same spirit.

A hero who overcomes a relatable weakness

I think there’s a large class of people that we’d look down on in the streets, but we’d love if we found them between the pages of a book.

While we’d all like to be crushing villains and taking names, most of us are fighting smaller, invisible battles each day. We’re frail, breakable, and often barely holding things together. When we don’t know someone’s heart, it’s easy to judge by appearance. That’s the wonderful thing about stories—they teach us what is often hidden behind facades in real life. They make us cheer for the poor, geeky outcast who, let’s be honest, not many of us would have befriended in real life. They make us fall in love with a man who few would probably tolerate the company of (yes, you, Mr. Darcy).

Awkwardness. Fear of what people think. Anger over irrational issues. Relationship problems. When we find characters beating the challenges we face ourselves, it inspires us to keep fighting too.

A vision of the future that is better than today’s reality

Hope and hopelessness, the two opposite ends of the spectrum, are both capable of instigating reckless actions. Our society is familiar with the latter. Desperate men with nothing to lose can do an extraordinary amount of damage.

But hope can lead to reckless living too—in a good way. Paul was utterly sold out for Christ because he believed in the deepest part of him that his present suffering could not compare to the glories to come. In fiction, this may be best seen in fantasy or sci-fi. Heroes who refuse to live under a shadow of evil or fear, who will give their all for the sake of a brighter future.

Hope can make humanity rise above a bleak reality.

Style

Style without substance is meaningless. But substance without style can range from boring to terrible. Style binds good substance together and makes it shine.

There are stories with all the “right” elements jammed in but executed poorly. Not going to name names, but we all know the ones that had so much potential in character or premise—and they flopped.

And there are some stories that are made great by their stylistic choices. If The Book Thief were narrated by anyone else, it would not be as brilliant. Probably still a decent story, but not stunning or truly set apart. Every single human being has many ordinary stories they can tell. Only a few become classics, and while it’s most often what you have to say, how you say it can also set the literary world spinning.

So…lights! Pens! Action! What inspires you? That, to me, is one of the great purposes of art and storytelling. We don’t create fiction in a vacuum: we create to reflect reality and inspire people to live more boldly and compassionately.

Carpe diem!

The Insatiable Search for Story

Epic film trailers have been exploding onto the Internet all year, from Jurassic Park to Avengers to Star Wars. I am as stoked as the next gullible fan, prepared to throw my money at these shameless, endless franchises, unless Rotten Tomatoes convinces me otherwise. It got me to thinking—we keep trying to tell bigger tales of wild future concepts, mind-bending thrillers, and edgy what-if scenarios. Why are we constantly seeking more?

Of course, there is the constant criticism of our digital, attention deficit generation. Without explosions, firefights, or eye-popping visuals, you can’t hold an audience in 2015—and sadly, that line of thought turns the art of storytelling into a soulless machine. The same goes for literature (or what passes for literature), as lengthy prose is tossed in favor of quick action. We are the generation of instant gratification.

But we are still story lovers. In an era of fads and viral trends, good stories manage to cut through the noise and endure. Writers continue to find ways to spin up new and better tales, and readers continue to hunt for the next best thing. Though inundated with flashy, sensory material, we learn to strip away the packaging and find the heartbeat. Why are our souls seared with a hunger for story?

We crave closure.

A common complaint I see in book reviews are about loose ends. “The author never explained…” or “But what happened to…?” We love a good resolution. Often, that means a cheerful ending, but not always; there are the tragedies that resolve more beautifully than a trite happily ever after. Perhaps the death of a character was made of the stuff of legends—honorable, symbolic, and sacrificial. It was meaningful, or it achieved a greater end that justified the loss. In essence, it brought closure to the story, or at least one chapter of a greater tale.

Our imperfect world rarely offers the luxury of closure, even in great lives. I recently read Unbroken, the remarkable biography of Louie Zamperini. But even in his stunning story arc, there are numerous “loose ends:” men who met senseless deaths in the war and redemption that did not reach full-circle for all. As much as I loved his tale, I wished a different conclusion for some of the characters.

Closure is not the norm for true stories, yet we long for it, and have made it an integral part of storytelling.

We are made in the image of a Creator.

To tell a story is to create. Based on our knowledge, experiences, and observations, we weave elements together to produce something new. In one way, stories are the seed of countless creations, the motivation to action. A single dream grows into a new technology. A single tragedy sparks a revolution.

God is the first Creator, and the first Storyteller. When we look at the course of human history, fraught as it is with strife and sorrow, we see the nature of creating and imagining shine through different cultures and continents, embedded in our humanity. We simply can’t stop making things and telling stories as we find beauty beyond the brokenness.

We are finite, seeking the infinite.

No manmade story can capture all the emotions and complexities of life. We applaud works of literature when they excel in one area—Lord of the Rings for its sweeping imagination, Anna Karenina for its human insight, Sherlock Holmes for its clever wit—but we can’t form an intelligent worldview based on a singular human narrative.

All inspiration and stories are imaging God’s intricate creation and immeasurable story that extends beyond time. We can’t capture the infinite in the finite, the eternal in the temporal. But we can, and we will, keep telling stories to kingdom come because there are always unexplored angles, unanswered questions, and a universe still waiting in the wings for its final resolution.

Young, Reckless and Nonconformist – Religious Thoughts on “Blue Like Jazz”

BluelikejazzI finally read Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, a few years behind its explosion onto the Christian book scene. I’m not very good at writing book reviews because I tend to get long-winded and dig a hole into one idea, but I felt compelled to share some thoughts. (For excellent and witty book insights, I recommend my friend Veronica!)

Miller is something of a controversial writer in Christian circles, often associated with the emergent church, but I believe he doesn’t consider himself party to that movement. His emphasis on feelings and experiences tend in that direction, though he holds to the depravity of man and the need for salvation. He speaks to an increasingly polarized culture and subcultures of Christianity, and for that I applaud the naked honesty and vulnerability in his writing, which inevitably garners critique from various groups. (And it has—I’ve skimmed the Goodreads reviews.) Needless to say, Blue Like Jazz comes with a host of strengths and weaknesses. I will say up front, though, that I don’t plan to rehash some of the widespread critiques I’ve already seen from many in the conservative, Reformed corner: he’s all about emotion, lacks a high view of Scripture, fuzzy on atonement, and on. I agree with a large part of the criticisms (not all), but at the same time, he’s writing more of a memoir, not a theological treatise. So I want to try to look at it as such.

What I Liked

He’s a good storyteller—humorous, compelling, honestly irreverent (which is sometimes refreshing, sometimes inappropriate), and surprisingly shrewd. Some reviews accuse the book of being nothing more than a meandering diary, but he manages to make that form engaging enough. I particularly liked his stories of living in Portland and attending Reed; it struck close to home for me, and he relates his tales in an up close, personal way, as if you were chatting over coffee in a hipster café.

Dying for something is easy because it is associated with glory. Living for something is the hard thing. Living for something extends beyond fashion, glory, or recognition. We live for what we believe.

He’s honest and real—in a way that can be scary and bold, as he gives a voice to universal but rarely spoken doubts, struggles, and desires. I do think he almost elevates the importance of self-expression and authenticity above objective Truth, but then again, the entire book is a product of his self-expression.

They are lonely. I’m not talking about lonely for a lover or a friend. I mean lonely in the universal sense, lonely inside the understanding that we are tiny people on a tiny little earth suspended in an endless void that echoes past stars and stars of stars. 

He has a sharp gaze into the human soul—I can’t quite compare him to C.S. Lewis, but I found some gems in the book that were reminiscent of Lewis’ insight. The unique edge Miller brings comes from the very different culture he grew up in, and how the severe rift between postmodern thought and conservative Christianity shaped his perspective. Having lived and breathed in both sorts of communities, his observations and struggles resonate with me (and I would guess, with many in our generation).

Somehow I had come to believe that because a person is in need, they are candidates for sympathy, not just charity. It was not that I wanted to buy her groceries, the government was already doing that. I wanted to buy her dignity. And yet, by judging her, I was the one taking her dignity away. 

The Self-Addiction Cycle

Early in the book, Miller expresses his belief in human depravity, and he describes coming to the realization in a personal way.

“Do I want social justice for the oppressed, or do I just want to be known as a socially active person? I spend 95 percent of my time thinking about myself anyway. I don’t have to watch the evening news to see that the world is bad, I only have to look at myself. I am not browbeating myself here; I am only saying that true change, true life-giving, God-honoring change would have to start with the individual. I was the very problem I had been protesting. I wanted to make a sign that read “I AM THE PROBLEM!”

He goes on to speak of our helpless, natural self-addiction many times over. He says, “The most difficult lie I have ever contended with is this: life is a story about me.” I couldn’t help but find it somewhat ironic that the overall theme of the book radiates with an intense focus on self. He repeatedly writes about his opinions and views almost as if they were a law unto himself—his dissatisfaction with relationships, with churches, etc. It made me wonder, “So how did the Gospel rescue him from self-absorption?” He speaks of the inestimable value of love and sacrifice, and how he found beautiful examples of that in the world outside the church. Perhaps this is where our theology comes into play, because I don’t see how one can truly begin to overcome the depth of depravity apart from bringing the full Gospel to bear—Christ’s substitutionary atonement for sin, and His righteousness alone credited to those who believe. I get the sense Miller has a strong grasp of the Gospel’s core, yet his book blurs a lot of lines. It leads me to ask: If he believes in the fullness and centrality of the Gospel, wouldn’t his writing display it?

In short, he shows a keen sensitivity to our innate self-obsession and he speaks of the need to grow in Christlikeness. I can’t help but think of John 3:30 – “He must increase, but I must decrease.” As the outcome of Miller’s conclusions, I half-expected and half-hoped his memoir would naturally grow in speaking more of the glories of Christ and the Gospel and less of himself. Not because “that’s what you’re supposed to do in a Christian book” but because “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20).” He believes that wonder is the best worship of God, yet what aspects of God command his awe, and where is his authority for the character of God? I’m sure he can give an answer, and I wish he had in the book.

The Division of Head and Heart

Miller brings a flavor of mysticism to his view of God, denying the need or ability to rationalize the spiritual. His story is an interesting case study of many drawn to postmodern, emergent breeds of thought—young, highly intellectual and educated people who seek to divorce intellect from spirituality. It’s an odd but strangely trendy phenomenon in our culture today.

While many flying the flag of Christianity over the centuries have sought to make faith viable by shutting down science, compromising to science, co-existing in supposed contradiction yet peace with science, etc., biblical faith never needs or seeks to do that. The Truth is able to appeal to the heart, mind, and soul and withstand the test of being embraced by our entire being, without turning a blind eye or fleeing from tough questions. False religions are the ones that latch onto one part of our faculties alone with an iron grip (e.g. science-as-religion that speaks to the intellect exclusively; spirituality that speaks to the heart and emotions exclusively).

And yet, we are sinners, imperfect in all our ways, and none of us achieve that right tension of loving the Lord with all our heart, soul, strength and mind. Miller falls into the “heart and soul” camp more than the “mind,” but those on the opposite end of the spectrum can surely learn from his basking in the “pure and furious” love of God and compassion for the lost and needy. These things can be lost in a narrow focus on doctrine. At the same time, I think Miller’s love for and faith in the Gospel comes with the undeniable influence of postmodern thought, which favors experientialism over doctrinal conviction. But doctrine is not simply for intellect’s sake, and deep theology and knowledge of truth is the firmest foundation and fuel for abiding love. Love for the sake of love is meaningless in the end and will not hold up in the face of our sin and brokenness. I think Miller would agree with that.

In closing, I’d echo his own well-spoken belief:

“I don’t think any church has ever been relevant to culture, to the human struggle, unless it believed in Jesus and the power of His gospel.” – Blue Like Jazz

The Real in the Surreal

“But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” – C.S. Lewis

surreal

I’m not sure how one defines growing up, but from an unschooled eye, I see it in the small, insignificant things—trading in sneakers for the next size, dismissing mom as the personal chauffeur to sports games and parties—and I always see it in retrospect. The quiet evolution in interests, tastes, personality. The sometimes subtle, sometimes sudden, shedding of youthful naiveté. Childhood shifts into adulthood in a slow whirlwind of changing landscapes, foreign city lights blurred by rainfall, abandoned bookshelves and silent studios. A world marked simultaneously by noise and loneliness.

We leave behind the children’s stories and fairy tales. There are broken hearts strewn across our streets and suburbs, stomped over by a world in a rush to the subway and office, never pausing for a second glance. Sometimes, those are our hearts. Sometimes, we are the ones trampling them underfoot. Finally, we see—victims and oppressors all—happily-ever-after are for the idiots. We read survival guides for life and watch shows about messy people with frayed relationships and aimless days because it’s like looking in a mirror and laughing. Life doesn’t make cynics out of all of us, but we are hard-pressed to find the same lively spark of wonder and hope in the eyes of the aging.

Perhaps there is another shift from adulthood into old age, when we return to the past tales. When we grow weary of the world and the next new thing, and find there is really nothing new under the sun. That psychology, technology, governments, wars, treaties, prisons, corporations and social movements will never fix our brokenness. When we come to the end of ourselves and stand on the brink of our last heartbeats, perhaps the light will break into the crevasses and we will find that ancient wisdom speaks with new authority.

Perhaps we will pick up the old fairy tales, and we will see them like never before—not with scoffing condescension or childlike wonder. The scales will fall off our eyes and we will see the truth in the myth, the real in the surreal, and discover a magic that all the world cannot suppress—

—sunlight piercing the morning dew—

—fierce, untamable love —

—glory beyond the frailness of words—

Are these not the truest tales of all?

The Bibliophile’s Crime

I was 15% of the way through this book (I’m reading on a Kindle, hence the % instead of the page number), and for a 1,000 page tome, that meant over 100 pages. If I shelved it for now, I’d forget the plot and be forced to start from the beginning. Or I could trudge on and keep reading and hope that I’d fall in love in the next, oh, 900 pages. I hopped onto Goodreads and read raving reviews for encouragement.

But I decided to drop it. Goodbye, The Way of Kings.

Yes, this is The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, the epic opening to a ten-book fantasy series. (I’m ready – throw your tomatoes with abandon.) Maybe my expectations were too high. Everyone says this book keeps them up at night. It had rather the opposite effect on me. Maybe I’m not a real, true-blooded fantasy fan. Or at least, one who has “gotten with the times,” and moved on from the black and white, good vs. evil fantasy archetypes of Tolkien and Lewis’ day. To boil it down, I simply didn’t love it. Nothing about the book—prose, plot, characters, setting—sunk its talons in and really shook my world or stirred my soul. And I didn’t want to read 900 more pages to see if anything would.

But it got me thinking about The Bibliophile’s Crime (self-created term; apologies for the melodrama). Dropping a book midway through. Should you? Shouldn’t you? We all have a method for making the decision, whether it’s based on haphazard feelings, a stubbornness to finish any and every book opened, or some unspoken criteria. I tried to formalize mine, and though it is by no means definitive or comprehensive, perhaps it will provide some ideas to chew on.

First of all, not every book should be read. Some are plainly a waste of time, some are terrible literature, and some are worse – downright disturbing or twisted for the sake of glorifying darkness. The tough part comes when a book seems to boast some value, but you’re having trouble getting into it. I’ve stuck through a number of novels like that. Some, like Pride and Prejudice and To Kill a Mockingbird, grew into my all-time favorites. Others, I disliked even more by the end. So, to keep reading or not, that is the question … and I have 4 of them that I use informally to evaluate.

  1. Why are you reading it? We read for different purposes. Sometimes, it’s purely for enjoyment, and sometimes, it’s educational. I’m much more willing to drop a book I’m reading for fun on the sole basis of entertainment value. I mean, if the value I’m looking for most isn’t there, then why keep going? But if I’m reading to learn, I’m much more reluctant to give up. And educational isn’t just for school, and it’s not learning sapped of all enjoyment. I read theology to learn more of God, or classics to learn more of enduring stories, or certain authors to study their prose. If I’m getting something out of it, I’ll keep going.
  2. What do others say about it? This is always subjective, and you’ll hear things from every end of the spectrum. It takes time and scrutiny to cut through the noise. I dig through reviews looking mainly for a common thread of what the real, redeeming value of the book is. What is the work most known and praised for? (e.g., “the vivid portrait of human nature” or “omg the guy is way hawt”) If I also find it a worthy characteristic, I’ll give it a few more chances. On the flip side, I look at what it’s criticized for, and weigh that in my consideration too.
  3. Is it bearable? If I really can’t stand it, I quit. Reading should not be torture.
  4. How long is it? This may seem superficial, but time is a precious commodity. If I can breeze through it in the same amount of time that it’d take to evaluate whether or not to read it, I may as well just read it. But if it’s going to take weeks on end (not to mention endless sequels, which are all the rage now), I’d consider more carefully. Every book is an investment of time, a use of stewardship, so make sure it’s worth it.

[pc]