Literary Musings

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.

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Life Reflections, Literary Musings

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!

[image cred]

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Literary Musings

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.

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