Between Mercy and Justice

Mercy and justice are not opposites, but they often find themselves at odds, particularly in the justice system. The tension between the two, between gracious love and rigid law, is a core conflict in so many stories. Recently, I’ve developed a penchant for legal dramas (by which, I mean Suits and The Good Wife) and I can’t help but notice this theme replaying itself. Suits has a spectacular ensemble cast, and I’ve grown to love each of the characters: their quirks, wit, heroics and vulnerabilities. I cheer when they win, when they beat their enemies, when they have their moments of glory. I ache when they ache. (And yes, I realize I may be overly emotionally invested.) But let’s be honest – all of my favorite characters are basically crooks. By the law, they deserve to be thrown into prison.

Good storytellers know how to play on our sympathies. Call it manipulative, but you have to admit, it takes skill to do. A well-executed emotional appeal strikes our heartstrings harder than impartial justice. Storytellers know that. The justice system knows that: attorneys would not be so bent on picking impartial jurors if most people could not be swayed by compassion, personal experiences, or anything other than cold, hard facts. We find ourselves rooting for “good” protagonists even if they aren’t completely by the book, even if they’re rule-breakers, because of something redeeming in their motives or heart. We empathize because we’ve been in their shoes, or simply because we understand their dilemma as fellow humans. We’re not robots, we don’t see the world in binary, and there’s no algorithm to our emotions.

But there you find the tension. The other day, I was watching an episode of The Good Wife where Alicia defends a middle-aged Indian woman facing deportation. She entered the U.S. illegally 27 years ago, but built her entire life in the States: two children, a job, and a home. In desperation, she tells Alicia, “I have nothing in India.” Her situation and her plea tugged at my feelings. I was totally rooting for Alicia to kick the opposing counsel’s behind on the case and save the poor woman. But as the other side put it, the truth is, she entered the country illegally. In the eyes of the law, she should be deported. It is mercy that cries for an alternative. So, what’s the right thing to do? The courts weren’t created for charity, and if every case like that was granted an exception, all sorts of chaos would break out. And yet … I felt compassion, and out of pity, I wanted an exception for her case. (I promise, I haven’t forgotten this is all fiction. I just get this way about stories.)

Where is the perfect meeting place of mercy and justice? Where is the sweet spot? Sorry. I don’t know. Sometimes, the two seem to be in direct opposition to one another, and we can all empathize with both sides at different times, depending on our natural bent and personal experiences. The only good answer I have isn’t my own: the cross of Christ is the only place I see the two come together in perfect, agonizing union. A picture of perfect justice and a picture of perfect love. The fair and full punishment for the wickedness of sin, and a love so unfathomable it embraces the worst of us unconditionally. It is something we cannot hope to emulate as broken sinners in a broken world, with our imperfect love and laws.

Personally, I love stories that deal with the tension well. Not in a cookie-cutter approach, where everything gets simplified and squared away. We are messy and complicated, tarnished by sin. Yet at the same time, we see a reflection of the image of God, the Imago Dei, imprinted on our souls – a God who is holy and just, yet also compassionate and slow to anger. One day, He will set all things right.

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Where’s the Silver Bullet?

I think we are all secretly in search of the silver bullet. The cure-all, magical solution that makes us masters of our field, victors over our habitual struggles, at the snap of our fingers. We laugh at the idea publicly, but we still can’t resist those articles – “Do this 1 thing and transform…” or “The foolproof 3 step process to…” Oh, how those deceptively small numbers win us over. Unfortunately, nothing truly rewarding has a quick and easy fix, just hiding in a corner we haven’t searched yet. The same goes for writing. Hard work, sweat, and discipline lie at the core of the craft. Unpopular traits for lazy humans.

I considered the things that helped me grow most as a writer, and the two standouts are both lifelong disciplines. Sure, you can run a thorough grammar and spellcheck on your work, or attend a class or conference, or listen to a talk by a successful author. All of these can help. But the two unparalleled “teachers” I find the most value in and draw the most inspiration from are:

  • Life experiences. I don’t go out into the world in search of thrills, but living in a God-made world, loving and clashing with other beautifully complicated people, adventure inevitably knocks on the door. We see more of the world and more of our own human nature the longer we live and the more we experience triumphs and trials. Five years ago, I read enough books and heard enough stories that I could write heartbreak convincingly enough. (“Oh, your heart literally hurts and food has no taste and you are certain you will wither and die.”) Today, I can write it better. I haven’t compared the technicalities and descriptions from a previous and current work, but life experiences arm us with an arsenal of literary weaponry to come out firing. Five years ago, I could bluff onto the page. Now, I can bleed onto the page.
  • Books. Reading inspired me to write, and books teach me how. Read widely, and see what separates the bad from the good, and the good from the great. Just as we live more nobly when we surround ourselves with good company, we write more splendidly when we soak our minds in good books. In school, we all complain that we don’t truly understand the abstract material until someone walks us through a concrete example. Learning the rules of writing and classroom technicalities alone will never accomplish what the simple act of picking up a book can.

Speaking of examples, I think of Khaled Hosseini as one case study. He wrote The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and And the Mountains Echoed. He’s a doctor, not an English major, but he published three stellar novels. I love his work, and I think he’s a talented writer for a few simple reasons – he has a natural killer prose, his life experiences give him the ammunition for rich cultural tales, and he loves stories.

So don’t chase the silver bullet. Just live and read, then go and write.

[photo cred]

Resolved to Read

I don’t go about New Year resolutions in any orthodox way, and I write them more to inspire than to formulate a checklist. I ignore all the advice to make resolutions that are “achievable” and “measurable”. Psh. But to each his own, and there’s certainly wisdom in being realistic. I may be neither wise nor realistic – which would explain a lot.

For the first time in (I think) ever, I put together a reading list for 2015 as an addendum to one of my resolutions. Every reader says their book list is far too long to finish in a lifetime. I concur, though I’ve never actually had any sort of list. I picked up books to read haphazardly, often on impulse, and occasionally on recommendation, since everyone’s taste is so distinct. In December, I started thinking of ways I could live more intentionally in the coming year, and since books are a significant part of my life, it struck me that I could read more intentionally too.

So I wrote down a rather rough and vague resolution.

Read widely. Read all the works of one author. Read classics. Read Christian books that deepen my understanding of God and help me live for His glory. Read for the thrill of it.

And I put together a list of books to go along with this. Looking at it holistically, it’s actually a very random mix. Oh well. Variety is the spice of life.

 

C.S. Lewis

The Four Loves
The Abolition of Man
A Grief Observed
The Great Divorce
Surprised by Joy

* Yes, I’m trying to read all his (major) books. He’s written bucket loads, so the plus is that I’ve already read a good number. But I also picked him because the blend of his life journey, profession, faith and storytelling make for a fascinating thinker. I’ve already seen bits and pieces of how his theology and worldview weave in and out of his fiction and nonfiction alike, and how the trajectory of his perspective morphs over his lifetime.

 

Classics

The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoyevsky)
Anna Karenina (Tolstoy)

 

Christian

The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment (Burroughs)
Assurance of Our Salvation (Lloyd-Jones)
The Promises of God (R.C. Sproul)
Jesus the Evangelist (Richard Phillips)
Surprised by Suffering (R.C. Sproul)
Orthodoxy (Chesterton)
One Perfect Life (MacArthur)
Alone with God (MacArthur)

* Confession: I snagged a lot of these from free Kindle book deals and they’ve been collecting digital dust. In case you were wondering how I decided on this list.

 

Fiction Fun

The Way of Kings (Brandon Sanderson)
Dune (Herbert)
Scarlet / Cress; Lunar Chronicles (Meyer)
The Sign of the Beaver (Speare)
Calico Captive (Speare)
From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (Konigsburg)
Flipped (Draanen)
I Am the Messenger (Zusak)
Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury)

As many new year resolutions go, they begin petering out towards the end of January. I admit, I’m slogging through Dostoyevsky right now. At my current rate, I may not get to a single other book in 2015. But now that I’ve posted this … I hope the public accountability kicks me into powering through. After all, murder and the meaning of life and all that good stuff – shouldn’t this be the sort of book that keeps you up at night?

(I know, who am I kidding?)

[photo cred]

Technology: Our Slave or Tyrant?

technology, future

Wearable technology is slowly but surely becoming the next Big Thing. We’ve got smart watches now, and smart clothes are making their debut, so we’ll probably all be buying smart underwear in a year or so. What a time to be alive. But it doesn’t end there – many predict that after wearables, implantables will follow. Technologies that will live inside of you. I was reading this article, which should give you a fascinating, or terrifying, view of the potential future tech landscape.

I studied Computer Science, but when it comes to technology, I’m less interested in banging out code than considering some of the more abstract issues the rapidly advancing field raises. Philosophy, morality, humanity – how does technology mold and shape our understanding of people and society? However fascinating technology gets, it doesn’t beat the startling intricacies of human nature. No surprise: God’s creations are infinitely better.

In literature, technology inspires all sorts of stories and bizarre futuristic worlds. It very well may be part of the reason dystopia has seen such a resurgence, in addition to the foolproof, mass market ploy of incorporating The Love Triangle. But the very best technology-inspired stories (I don’t want to slap on the science fiction label, because they don’t necessarily have to be) ask the hard questions. How do we hold security and freedom in proper tension when we have the ability to know and control too much through 360 cameras and chip implants? What, at the very raw core of our being, makes us human, when there are clones and emotionally intelligent robots walking the streets? And perhaps at the center of it all:

Is technology our slave or tyrant?

If you dig deeper, the question is really about the condition of our souls. Technology is a neutral thing, and it can be used for good or evil, just like nuclear energy or money. From a biblical perspective, it ought to be our slave. Our vocation as human beings is to subdue the earth and everything in it, and technology is a means to do that: to help us water the fields, keep the lights on, erect buildings, increase efficiency. It can absolutely be used and stewarded well (something I’m interested in exploring in my career, Lord willing). Yes, technology is improving the convenience and comfort of many aspects of life. I don’t need to leave the house for groceries? And here we were just thinking what a brilliant concept the supermarket was! 

But from the Fall and the corruption of the human heart, it will inevitably be abused. For every good use of tech, there will be unspeakably terrible ones. The issue is not that technology makes us better or worse, but that it exposes us, perhaps in new ways. How we approach it and how we use it reveals and magnifies our brokenness. These are 2 things we cannot halt: the advance of technology, and the decay of morality. It makes for some very good storytelling, yet some very sobering realities. Is technology our slave or tyrant?

I’m afraid many people think it’s our salvation.

Maranatha.

 

Thoughts? I have plans to write something of a follow-up to this on the interplay between technology and characters in literature. Stay tuned!

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Stories for Our Souls

stories, paris, france, inspiration

We live in a world of extreme sensory overload and nonstop schedules. Did you scroll through this post and decide it was too long of a read? I hope not, because it isn’t that long. Or maybe you just read the bolded, numbered items. Thanks for making my point – I hope you stay and read this now.

With social media, video games and TV shows on top of our life responsibilities, I think many of us lose sight of the value of good, old-fashioned reading. Remember books? Those things with paper and ink and grand stories? I encounter a lot of people who say, “I don’t have time to read.” But yes, you do! How much time do you spend on Facebook, or playing computer games? I’m not saying that those are bad things, or that you should assume a monkish lifestyle in a cave with only a library for company (as much as I love books, I’d die too). But there is time. If you make it a priority.

I have 4 simple reasons why I think we need to dust off our bookshelves and reclaim the art of reading. These aren’t coming from a highbrow literary scholar or a cynic scoffing at a generation of digital junkies. Yours truly is just an ordinary reader who finds a spark of magic beneath well-told tales and wants to share.

  1. It gets us inside other people’s heads

Well, that sounds creepy. But I mean it. Reading is one of the best mediums for getting inside people’s heads. Even when the story and characters are fictional, the thoughts and emotions reflect a piece of the author’s own mind. Ernest Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” A good author pours himself into his writing.

There is something thrilling and challenging in gaining access to such a full spectrum of intimate thought. It broadens our perspective. Growing up, my worldview was largely shaped by my family, friends and teachers – the people around me who spoke into my life. And it was shaped by books. We are not God, and we do not create ex nihilo, or out of nothing, in matter or in ideas. We are taught, molded by others, and even geniuses stand on the shoulders of giants. Books opened up my eyes to a richer and wider range of thoughts from people of vastly different cultures, eras and lifestyles. It challenges us too. What is in the mind of an adulterer? A murderer? A man single-mindedly bent on vengeance? As a Christian, I want to read with discernment and avoid garbage. But I don’t think we should shy away from the gritty realities of our fallen world. If nothing else, you will understand more deeply the depravity of man, and you may be forced to examine yourself as well, because we all have the capacity to fall far and hard, if not for the grace of God.

  1. It cultivates compassion

I was as selfish a child as they come and I had little tolerance for the shortcomings of others (I’m still working on this). Literature taught me to love flawed people, because all good characters are flawed. Of course, I don’t give all the credit to books – there was the selfless example of my parents, good friends and mentors I was blessed with, and above all, the grace of God. But I will say books taught me a great deal about loving the unlovable. Partly because I got into their heads and saw they weren’t all that unlovable once you understood them (few people are villains just for villainy’s sake) and partly because they held up a mirror to my own heart.

  1. It inspires us

Do you remember how Sam carried Frodo up Mount Doom when he just couldn’t make it himself? When we close a great book, we are awed that the world is still going on the way it was before when everything has changed. Simply because we have this new story living inside of us. Stories inspire us – not just to nod, assent that it was good, and move on – but they inspire us to action. We won’t all get to save our friend’s life behind enemy lines and run a blade through the monsters, but there are little things that make a difference. Be faithful where you are. Reach out a hand when you see a need. And you never know, greatness may be thrust upon you one day.

Sam was just a gardener before he was a hero.

  1. It teaches us about the Gospel

All good stories, though fictional, are echoes and dim reflections of the one Great Story. They are imperfect, because they are written by imperfect people, but they echo the themes of sacrificial love, the brokenness of sin, redemption, the ultimate triumph of good. I love reading quality fantasy. The worlds and people may not exist, but fantasy often echoes the truest themes loudest of all. It magnifies the things of the human heart that our daily lives minimize – the battle to do what is right, the value of loyalty and friendship – to an epic and grand scale. Like C.S. Lewis says in The Weight of Glory, it shows us a clearer picture of who humans really are: eternal souls that will either be glorified or damned.

Stories make me shun existentialist philosophies. They show me there is more to live for than man-made ideals and that our hearts are pressed with purpose and a desire for nobler things. We are stamped with the image of divinity, created for eternity, drawn to redemption, made for glory.

So tolle lege! Take up and read.

Books Worth Reading: Axes for Our Frozen Seas

Books, Book Recommendations, Library
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The “10 Books” Challenge has been making its rounds on social media, and I recently took part. But for someone who loves to read, pasting a list of (just) 10 books with no explanation is decidedly unsatisfying. So I created this, partly to indulge myself, partly to benefit you. I don’t know about you, but I find myself wanting to read extremely different genres depending on my strange and colorful spectrum of moods. If you’re looking for a good read of a specific nature, maybe something here will suit your fancy. Or you can tuck this away for future reference. Or you can skim my list, scoff, and move on with your life. But don’t tell me if you go with option 3.

The categories are relatively loose, and I defined them mostly after choosing the books. So don’t take the structure too seriously. There is a wide, wide range here. I can almost guarantee you won’t like every book – because you aren’t me. But I found something worthwhile in every single one, whether it was life changing, magnificently written, or simply a very good time. (My private, and secondary, ambition was that everyone would find at least one book on the list that they: have never heard of, are also totally enamored with, are severely opposed to, would add to their to-read list. Did I succeed?)

This isn’t a list of books you “must read before you die.” I don’t feel qualified to make one of those. But I will stand behind this as a list of worthy reads.

Tell me what you think. And what’s on your list?

  

For Your Soul

Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis: Lewis holds up bravely in the face of existential and post-modern philosophies.

The Gospel According to Jesus, John MacArthur: Cut the sugarcoating. MacArthur will bring you face to face with the Jesus who said, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Me.

Heaven, Randy Alcorn: If you’re skeptical about this, so was I. But Alcorn is biblical, thoughtful, informative and enthusiastic about eternity in a contagious way.

The Truth of the Cross, R.C. Sproul: Sproul brings home the fullness, significance and depth of the cross. Appreciate grace all over again.

Saved in Eternity, Martyn Lloyd-Jones: Lloyd-Jones is an unparalleled expositor of Scripture – watch him tackle John 17, the High Priestly Prayer.

Outta This World

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien: If you can’t make it through the entire series – I get it. But if you do, I hope you understand why Peter Beagle calls Tolkien the colonizer of dreams. 

The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis: Don’t be like Eustace; read the right sort of books. Like these.

The Giver, Lois Lowry: What makes us human? Lowry paints a world that is almost seductive yet terrifying.

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, Matthew Stover: You would never guess that this brilliant, sweeping tragedy rose out of the ashes of that less-than-mediocre movie. I’d venture to say: not just for diehard fans (but I sort of was one, so take it with a grain of salt).

Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis: It’s weird, but profound. It’s haunting and Lewis touches something deep in us.

Rollicking, Good Adventures

The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexander Dumas: This is a crazy thrilling ride. It’s not lacking in depth either.

The Scarlet Pimpernel, Emmuska Orczy: It’s like Batman during the French Revolution, sans Christopher Nolan’s dark makeover.

Mark of the Lion, Francine Rivers: Its historical Christian fiction and it comes with some common flaws of the genre. But on the whole, it’s a grand story that’ll take you back to the heyday of Rome and, I daresay, inspire you with its conviction and courage.

Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones: Characters with quirk, wit, and warmth. The story is also tons of fun.

Watership Down, Richard Adams: Yes, it’s about rabbits, but it’s a better adventure story than many about humans.

Drama & Real Life

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee: It’s a timeless ode to childhood and growing up wrapped in something noble.

The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini: He brings characters, in all their brokenness and feeble aspirations, to life. And I seriously envy his prose.

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen: She understood a woman’s heart even better than the way Taylor Swift understands girls today. Lest you think it’s just the predecessor to empty-headed rom coms, Austen has plenty of social insights, satire, and highbrow humor.

The Book Thief, Markus Zusak: It’s a simple story, but it will wrench your heart out.

The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom: True story, and a good one at that, about courage, faith and compassion.

Throwbacks

Nancy Drew, Carolyn Keene: When I refer to my detective novels phase back in the day, this is all I really mean.

Doctor Doolittle, Hugh Lofting: I definitely preferred talking animals to talking humans.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Robert C. O’Brien: I have fond memories of this book. Writers have really done some magic with mice – Mrs. Frisby, Reepicheep, Hermux, Redwall… Yes, I wanted a pet one.

Cedar River Daydreams, Judy Baer: Warm and cozy books with an ensemble of lovable characters. Just remember to suspend your disbelief, because they’re not much like real high school kids.

The Chronicles of Prydain, Lloyd Alexander: Classic fantasy tropes based on Welsh mythology. The princess is named Eilonwy and there’s a magical pig. You should be sold.

 

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

Born of Idealism and Iniquity

The Hunger Games. Divergent. The Giver. The Maze Runner.

…and on.

Dystopian worlds are seeing a revival in literature—particularly in YA fiction—and film. Many of the books, packaged as boxed sets and hardcovers, make for a veritable weightlifting session at Costco. And the trailers are endless. Even a minute-long propaganda reel from President Snow of Hunger Games fame is eaten up by the masses. The teaser trailer has more views on YouTube than the State of the Union address – you know, the real speech from the real flesh-and-blood president of the country.

Why are we so enamored with dystopia? Do we see some hauntingly real reflection of our own nature and society in those destructive worlds?

In some way or other, each dystopia is a desperate grasp for utopia that goes terribly wrong. The totalitarian regime seeks to quash crime. The criminalization of emotion seeks to put conflict to death by repressing man’s hot-blooded passions. The theme of control dominates dystopian worlds because without it, the entire system topples. But its constant presence also implies this idea: that we think it is necessary. The perpetrators of dystopian societies are not scheming: what can I do to build the most awful, poisonous world ever? No, they are thinking of how they can maintain order, stability and achieve perfection. How they can achieve utopia. Their single-minded obsession may twist them into monsters, but that was not their intent. There is the underlying implication that there must be control, because without it, humanity will destroy itself.

So why doesn’t it work? 

It seems pretty apparent. They might suppress the crime, rebellion, and chaos for a while, but they simultaneously suppress some untamable, deeply human things: free-spiritedness and the wild spectrum of human sentiment. But our freedom comes with the capacity for good and evil, which only begs the question – where is the perfect balance between control and freedom?

Well, there’s no such thing because it’s the wrong question. It is the wrong question because there is no regime, no measured balance, which will make any utopia a reality. The fundamental problem does not lie in an unbalanced system, but in the corruption of the human heart. We are sinners, fallen from glory, incapable of moral perfection. The unbalanced system is simply a symptom of the disease. Dystopia is the child born of idealism and iniquity; it is the collision of utopia’s seduction with man’s sinfulness.

Let’s circle back to the dystopian fad today. There are certainly creative ideas, novel twists, and memorable characters that are breathing new life into the genre. Action, adventure, romance, and intrigue wrap themselves neatly into the fabric of emerging dystopian plots. But I think there is something more than that that draws us. An inexplicable part of our souls longs after utopia, perfection and harmony, but it runs up against the beast of human nature. It collapses, defenseless, in the face of our inability to overcome selfishness and injustice. Dystopia captures that tension, failure, and vicious cycle. We keep trying to beat human nature with human structures and it’s a losing game. On our own, we will only perpetrate the cycle, never break it.

It is a bleak picture. But I didn’t write this to depress you. I wrote this because I realized dystopia gets something so right about human nature, and in that, it stops just short of pointing to the ultimate answer. We cannot break the cycle; it takes an outside force to do that. Changing the system will never save us; we need to change our hearts. Enter the Gospel.

Sinners cannot create perfection; sinners require redemption.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. – 2 Cor. 5:17-21

I’d love to hear what you think. Since we aren’t living in a dystopia yet (unless we’re in the Matrix), you can share your opinion and you probably won’t be carted off to prison for it.

But I make no promises.