Monday, October 29, 2012

Hey! That Cloud Looks Like a Vague and Obvious Hidden Meaning!

Tom Hanks-san
Please note: This post is about the film Cloud Atlas which is currently in cinemas. Based on weekend box office reports, I know you haven’t seen it. Don’t even try to tell me otherwise. If you do intend to see the film, don’t worry. I don’t know that this particular movie is capable of being spoiled. If it can be, it won’t be here. If you would like to explain the movie to me, then I will gladly spoil it for you if that is what you’re looking for. I am assuming that you are a Wachowski if you are making that offer. Or maybe an Asian Tom Hanks.

I didn’t hate the movie nearly as much as some do. In fact, I would agree with Roger Ebert who said he was never bored during the three hours of the movie, and I felt that each of the six storylines were (to greater or lesser effect) entertaining and engaging on their own. As far as what the film was trying to say as a whole—what with all the cast sextupling and a recurring birthmark and a lack of strict continuity—I found it all pretty darn vague. It’s as if the filmmakers know that there are big and important things to say about faith and unity and the afterlife and the interconnectedness of the universe, but they’re not quite sure what those things are. Still, they are standing up and screaming these vague nothings as loud as possible, or at least having Tom Hanks and Halle Berry scream them, and sometimes in a half-Ebonics gibberish sort of language. I haven’t read the book that the film is based on so I don’t know whether this concept comes from that or not, but I was reminded of the Shakespeare quote, “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” I was also reminded of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
It's Okay 'Cause It's a Classic

That actually makes it sound like I despised the film much more than I did. I’m glad I saw it. It’s terribly ambitious. I might see it again, but probably won’t go out of my way to do so. Let’s hope it shows up on Netflix with subtitles so I can try to follow the, um, distinct dialect of English that tattooed Tom Hanks is so fond of in one-sixth of the film.

And what about those vague nothings that the characters seem to speak of so earnestly? It seems to me that the very fact that simply bringing up these questions can make a film seem deep and spark so much discussion is because God put eternity into man’s heart (Ecc. 3:11). There is a longing deep inside, an inherent knowledge that we were made for more than this life, that there are questions and issues at play bigger than our own lives. The idea of humanity as a cosmic mistake precludes the possibility of greater  meaning or an afterlife, although only a fraction of the people who adhere to evolutionary theory seem to admit that. They would no doubt shake their heads and cluck their tongues, talking about how self-deluded we all are. And yet we get works like Cloud Atlas which very clearly want to say something about all of this, even if it’s not quite sure what to say.

I’m not saying that the desire to believe that our lives are part of some universal tapestry is hard evidence for a Creator. But I will make the case that, if the universal tapestry is real, it only makes sense that there is a Master Artist working it all together. Force the creative forces behind Cloud Atlas to try to define whatever force is at work in the fiction of their film, and I don’t know what you’d get. Perhaps something vague like the Force? Perhaps some sort of ill-defined intelligence or vibe or karma or something like that? Or does it leave open the possibility of a personal God who guides and works in ways that we cannot begin to see or understand (Isa. 55:8-9)?

If you want to look for threads running through all of human history, look no further than the Creator of history itself. To say that history is His story might be a wretched and clichéd little turn of phrase that I would never suffer to see in print, but consider the beautiful tale of redemption that the Bible paints. The very first seedlings of messianic prophecy show up as early as Genesis 3 and is the underlying theme running through the whole of Scripture until Revelation comes to a close with the beginning of eternity. Even this earth is yearning for the days when all will be put right and when this story comes to a close (Rom. 8:22).

Also Not a Cliché
It has been said that truth is stranger than fiction. I believe that the amazing truth about this world, about a rebellious people and a loving God who goes to great lengths to redeem them, is more incredible and fantastic than anything Cloud Atlas. The incredible cost that the Lord has paid to restore relationship with sinful people is more inspiring than any sacrifice you might see on the big screen. And it’s all true. Not true in a “based on a true story even though everyone involved died so no one can possibly know what actually happened during almost the whole movie” sort of true (anyone else remember The Perfect Storm?), but more true than anything else we believe and experience.

If nothing else, an eternity in paradise—that tremendous rest that was bought with the precious blood of the Son of God—seems like the perfect place to figure out the plot of Cloud Atlas. We should have enough time, anyway.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Subtle Art of Judging a Book by its Cover

Samantha Scott's Emaline's Gift Cover
A fellow Christian indie author mentioned that she was putting together information about the different options available for authors when it comes time for the cover design. I offered to write a blog post about the Freelancer contest that I set up that ended up resulting in the cover for Emaline’s Gift—and, hopefully, a longterm relationship with illustrator Samantha Scott, who I hope to commission for all subsequent artwork related to The Magi Chronicles in the future. I was very pleased with the contest and with its results and am very happy with my final cover art and with my new friendship and business relationship with Samantha.

One of the questions that one hears a lot from indie authors is how they can create a professional-looking cover. The short answer, in my opinion, for the vast majority of askers is: You can’t. Yes, I realize that there are indeed authors out there with the skills and software necessary to design professional covers. I think. I mean, I’m sure they are. But nobody’s great at everything and the skills that it takes to write a great book do not overlap with the skills that it takes to make a great cover. And there are a lot of bad covers out there on a lot of indie books. I’ve seen them, you’ve seen them, and let’s just be honest and admit that we all judge books by their covers. If we see an amateurish cover, we assume that what’s inside will most likely be amateurish writing and we avoid it.

My Original Design
CreateSpace's Cover
Creator Version
I’m not trying to speak from any sort of arrogant position, mind you. I’m not remotely pleased with the cover for my short story, The Book of the Harvest. I did it myself. You can tell that I did it myself. People have raved in the reviews that the book is a wake-up call and how the Holy Spirit is using the story in their lives—but I realize that potential buyers may well have a difficult time getting past the cover. It’s something I should address. The paperback cover looks nominally better (although the basic design is awfully generic) because I needed to use CreateSpace’s cover design templates and I should probably, at the least, replace the Kindle version with that one. But, in my opinion, both covers look just hopeless alongside the one Samantha designed for Emaline’s Gift. One of the main reasons that I commissioned the artwork for the latter is that The Book of the Harvest is a $.99 short story on Kindle. I get about a third of that price per sale. Emaline’s Gift is a novel and so the price is appropriately higher and it seems more likely that I will recoup the expenses I spent on the cover than if I were to spend the same amount on the short story. Indeed, Emaline’s Gift has already brought in more revenue than The Book of the Harvest despite the fact that the former has a more narrow demographic (fans of Christian fantasy) than the latter (Christian readers) and despite the price difference. I think having a great cover matters.

The Freelancer contest was not my first attempt at hiring someone to make the cover. I found an artist who had done other quality work in the field—his cover had caught my eye—and contacted them initially. It didn’t work out. I had a pretty clear vision of what I was looking for in my cover and described it to the artist. As soon as I made the payment, he stopped communicating. It wasn’t until I contacted him again after two weeks had passed (he had told me that it should take a couple of days) that he sent me something. It wasn’t remotely what I had asked for (for example, the red flames on the official cover are important to the story, but this designer had ignored that and drawn standard yellow flames) and—worse—the design was completely inappropriate for my Christian audience. I realize that some of my potential audience will never pick up the book because of the “magical” elements, despite the fact that I think the story deals with it in a very biblical manner, but this artist’s cover had Emaline looking evil/possessed and that, in addition to not fitting the story at all, would have repelled my target audience! The artist did not respond or ever send me anything else, and I finally was able to get a refund since I had paid through Paypal. When it comes to dealing with people or businesses you have no experience with, Paypal is your friend.

Going with the established artist whose work I admired didn’t work, so I decided to  look into a Freelancer contest. Actually, the minimum amount to create a contest was, in the end, less than the previous artist would have charged for full rights to the design: he individually licensed the work for print and electronic uses, but the final design from the Freelancer contest would be mine entirely and I could use it however and wherever I wanted. There are different options that can drive the price up: you can make the contest worth more and try to attract a higher-caliber talent and there are options to feature your contest which might get more entries. But the contest carried a money-back guarantee if I didn’t find a design that would work, and I know that would appeal to a lot of cash-strapped indie authors, especially if this was their first time trying the contest.

There were some options that I should mention. The first was the option to “seal” the contest. In a sealed contest, only I would be able to see the entries. In a normal contest, the designers could also see the other designs. Most of the designers who entered—you have the opportunity to talk to them privately and publicly through the contest—encouraged me not to seal it. They said it was for my protection to keep it open because they could call foul if there was a designer who was plagiarizing work from elsewhere. Only one of the designers wanted me to seal the contest because he was afraid of his ideas being stolen; well, when he finally submitted his entry, it wasn’t very good anyway, so it didn’t matter. The other option was to guarantee the contest. The big issue with the guarantee is that you are saying that you absolutely will assign a winner and award the prize money. This means that more artists (in theory) will submit to the contest because they know the contest-maker won’t back out, but it also means that you lose your money back guarantee from Freelancer. A number of the artists encouraged me to guarantee the contest, but I didn’t feel comfortable doing so. I honestly wanted to find a winner—otherwise, why would I do the contest?—but I had no idea what the overall quality of the entries would be.

But I understand why the designers would push for the guarantee. And I appreciate those who disapprove of these contests because the artists who enter are often so desperate for work that they spend a great deal of time on their designs when only one person is actually going to get paid (as the one who initiates the contest, you do have the option of purchasing more than one design—but most of us just don’t have the money to burn and we really only need one, don’t we?). I tried to give feedback quickly and make it very clear when a design was way off base because I didn’t want to inadvertently encourage someone who just wasn’t at the same level of talent as some of the artists. I thought it was best to be completely honest so artists could decide whether it made sense for them to continue putting work into the contest or not.

A Late Entry That Caught My Eye
Overall, I was thrilled with many of the submissions and could have picked several (perhaps with a bit of tweaking) for my cover and been very happy. I wish I could show them off here, but of course the images belonged to the artists who created them. There is one I can throw up here because I noticed that the artist made the picture available online, so I can link to it here. I actually really liked this one as well, but it came very late in the contest so it was too late for me to give feedback and get them to make some little changes (in particular, the perspective on the arm and wrist in the foreground looked wrong to me. Samantha’s drawing had actually been uploaded very early in the contest and she remained a frontrunner throughout. Freelancer lets you put together a little poll, which I did and made available to my Facebook friends. I took my favorite images and let my friends vote on it and, once again, Samantha’s drawing was a favorite.

Would I do the Freelancer contest again? Well, for The Magi Chronicles, as far as I’m concerned, I won’t ever need to. Retaining Samantha as my official series illustrator will bring consistency to the series. She’s been great to work with, and we’ve struck up a bit of a friendship as well and I look forward to continue to working with her in the future. But for other projects that Samantha’s style might not be right for? Sure. I don’t know for sure whether I would be confident enough to guarantee the contest just yet (and thus forsake my money-back guarantee  if the entries don’t work out), but I definitely saw enough creativity, talent and professionalism to go back to the Freelancer well again.

One caveat is that I had a pretty clear vision of what I was looking for with Emaline’s Gift. I wanted Emaline on the cover (and I passed along to the designers the description of her from the book) and I wanted her to be staring in wonder at red flames that she had inadvertently conjured. It’s an important part of the book and I think that it speaks to both the fantasy genre and the primary protagonist. Now, my readers will know that the scene on the cover doesn’t match up exactly to the one in the book; I simplified it for the cover and think that was the right decision. Now, if I was going in to the Freelancer contest without a clear vision for what I was looking for, would I have been as happy with the results? I don’t know. Even with the parameters I gave, there was a wide and satisfying range of interpretations that I loved seeing—but there was also a consistency that might have made it easier to judge.

Anyway, that’s pretty much my experience. I hope it helps make some decisions. With Freelancer’s guarantee, I figure you’ve got no reason not to give it a shot if you’ve got the money to do it. And, for what it’s worth, all this chattering about how unhappy I am with the cover for The Book of the Harvest has inspired me to give it a facelift, which I’ll go ahead and post. If you do go ahead and do it yourself, the good news is that there are always chances to tweak and improve. If you think your cover might be holding you back, spend some time on it. Experiment. And then hire a professional! That’s still my best advice if there’s any way you can afford it. If not? Well, keep at it. You’ve got nothing to lose.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Interview with Steve Biddison, Author of The Center Circle

I believe I first discovered Steve Biddison and The Center Circle Chronicles through Twitter. I was curious whether anyone was using the #ChristianFantasy hashtag and there were precious few who were—but Steve was. I checked out the link he posted and, always willing to check out other Christian fantasy works, I tweeted about my desire to sit down and read it one day. Steve followed me back and we tweeted a bit back and forth and ultimately decided to do this interview.

I got my hands on the first book in the series, The Center Circle, and started reading about a college freshman named Landon who discovers that he is actually the prince of a faraway kingdom. I was reminded of Stephen Lawhead’s Song of Albion series (which is one of my favorites) and—and this might sound a little more bizarre—the Australian TV series The Elephant Princess, some of which I’ve watched with my daughters through Netflix.

This isn’t a review site, but I’ll just make a few brief comments. The book really should be edited much more carefully than it was. That’s something that usually drives me crazy and has led me to give up on more than one book in the past, but I was eventually drawn into the story regardless. The characters and story and a neat twist in the climactic battle scene drew me out past the editing and writing problems, and I was gladly eating it all up by the time this book ended. I absolutely intend to get the sequel, which is out now, and I recommend The Center Circle to other fantasy fans, bearing in mind the caveats I just mentioned.

I’m very grateful that Steve took the time out of his schedule to do our interview. You can find his website here—which has links to all of his books in a handful of formats—and you can pick up the Kindle version of The Center Circle here and the paperback version here.

Without further ado, let’s get on to the interview:

Brad: Thanks for joining us, Steve. How long have you been writing?

Steve: My love for writing started when I was about twelve years old.  My first “novel” was a hand-written Star Trek novel that never made it past the spiral notebooks I wrote it in.  My senior year in high school, I began my next novel.  It was a fantasy novel about ten young people from another world who battled together against the forces of evil.  Back then, no one owned personal computers so I again hand wrote it on notebook paper.  I called that book The Center Circle.

Steve Biddison
Throughout the next couple of decades, I put my fiction writing aside as I chased after my career of coaching basketball.  During that time, I channeled my writing interests into writing coaching manuals and other books related to coaching basketball.  But those books were more for my own staff and team and never made it out of my immediate sphere of influence.

In addition, I served for four years as a youth pastor and, during that time, I continued writing devotionals and sermon series for my youth group.

A year and a half ago, I discovered Amazon Kindle and realized that I now had a venue in which to share my writing with the world.  The first book I published was a basketball coaching book that has been a best seller in its genre.

Ever since I finished The Center Circle while in college, I always knew that one day I would revisit that novel and rewrite it.  About a year ago, that time finally came.  Now to be honest, there is not much that remains from the original storyline in today’s version of the story.  The title remains the same and the name of the evil person is the same.  But that is about it.

Brad: Tell me about Landon, your protagonist.

Steve: At the beginning of the saga, you see Landon as a college freshman on Earth.  He had been orphaned at an early age with his earliest true memories being in an orphanage.  However, not long into his freshman year, he discovers that he is not originally from earth.  His real name is Landru, the heir to the throne of Orion, and he is being summoned back to his home world to unite with the rest of The Center Circle to defeat the rising evil power.

Since the bulk of the story takes place after he leaves earth, we don’t really see a lot of what he was like before, but we see enough glimpses into his early life to know that he was competitive and loyal.  However, growing up on earth, he usually was a bit of a loner.  We even see in the opening scene of the story that he is alone in his dorm on a Friday night.  However, his sense of competitiveness and leadership comes to the surface when he is thrust into the role of uniting the Center Circle to basically save the kingdoms of his home world.

Brad: I thought it was a neat detail that Landon’s life growing up had been, unbeknownst to him, guided to make sure that he would develop the skills he would need later. Still, I have to admit that I was surprised by how quickly Landon adapted to the circumstances he suddenly finds himself in. What is it about him that makes him so readily accept that which many of us would seriously struggle with?

Steve: In a way it is surprising how quickly he adapted to the fact that he was not Landon, the college freshman on Earth, but was instead Landru, the crown prince of Orion.  In normal circumstances, it would have probably taken him much longer to adapt to the new realization, but, being that almost from the minute he transported to his home world of Orion he was battling for his life, he didn’t really have time to fret over the loss of his former life.  Had there been a lot of down time where he either wasn’t fighting for his own life or trying to rescue a friend, then I am sure he would have taken the time to process all the changes going on his life. 

Brad: There are a lot of pop culture references in your book. In the first couple of chapters, you allude to Star Trek, Stargate, Indiana Jones and Angry Birds. Are you concerned at all about the book aging poorly, that readers in future generations wouldn’t get all the references and that this might detract from the story?

Steve: I guess theoretically it is possible that the future generations would not get the pop culture references.  But let’s face it, Star Trek has been around for 46 years and is still going strong with another movie being released next spring.  Besides, at least for the next half century, I have heard from a few readers of the series that they found the allusions to classic sci-fi material a real drawing point. 

Brad: Midway through the book, we start seeing the beginnings of a romance. Was this something you had intended from the beginning, or did the romance develop naturally as you wrote?

Steve: It’s really interesting that you ask about the romance.  I personally feel that every story has to have at least a little bit of a romance in it.  So, yes, I intended to have a romance in this one.  However, I had planned on the romance being between Landru and Brenlee.  And I am sure some of that romance, or at least the potential for that romance, is a little evident in the story.  However, in a very strange way, another character danced into the story and things started to change.

The scene where we meet Theophania was originally supposed to be a scene written for the sole purpose of getting Landru out of the way for a period of time while things happened in another world.  She was only going to be in that one chapter, then maybe down the line somewhere in the series, she would reappear.  But you know sometimes as an author, you find your characters talking to you?  That’s what happened to me.  In no uncertain terms, Theophania told me she had to have a much bigger role in the series than what I was planning.  And as I wrote that one chapter, I could sense the chemistry building between the two of them and, even though I had no intention originally of them falling in love, they both told me that it was happening and I might as well accept that fact.

Brad: I know precisely what you’re talking about as an author, and I actually sort of like that it happened that way instead of planning it out at the beginning or before the book was started. I feel that letting the characters dictate the story always makes for stronger fiction.

Do you know at this point how many books we should expect in The Center Circle Chronicles?

Steve: At this point in time, the second book of The Center Circle Chronicles is available .  This book, The Weapons of Warfare, has a few interesting plot twists with many allusions to Arthurian Literature and travels to Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids.  I started this series with the idea that it would be a trilogy.  And that is still my plan.  I guess it’s possible that that I could decide to write a second trilogy, but right now I plan on making it simply one trilogy.  However, Theophania or one of the other characters might tell me I have to write more.  But so far, they haven’t done that.

Brad: What were your influences in writing this story?

Steve: When I was in 8th grade, a friend of mine lent me a book series, The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny.  The story centered around one man and all of his half -brothers and sisters who were all out to gain the throne of Amber – the one true world.  I loved the series, but hated the idea that the family hated each other so much that they killed each other in order to gain the throne.

Fast forward to my senior year in high school.  My English teacher had us write a short story.  I took the members of my class and wrote them into the fantasy short story with the idea that I would turn it into a novel along the same lines as Roger Zelazny’s work.  Only this time, they would have to work together, not try to kill each other.  Even though the characters in the current Center Circle incarnation are not directly named after those class members, some of them are definitely still based on those people I knew so well almost thirty years ago.

Brad: Given your determination to have the members of the Center Circle working together, were you caught off guard at all by all the squabbling that they do engage in, especially between Landru and Callitha? Did you find that some conflict within the Circle was necessary to build suspense, and did that cause you to reevaluate your feelings about The Chronicles of Amber at all?

Steve: I will have to answer that question in two ways.  1) Hardly ever do you find a group of people who have been tasked to complete a great assignment perfectly working together at all times.  So, yes, from the beginning I did plan to have there be a rift between Landru and Callitha.  And I kind of wanted there to be the squabble over who really had the power in the group and what that power actually meant.  With that said, 2) when the characters actually started taking on a life of their own during my writing of the book, I sensed that there was a greater hostility between them than I had first thought there was.  And then throw in Callitha's animosity towards Brenlee, who was one of Landru's closest friends, and I think it just escalated way beyond what I had planned.  In the second book of the series, The Weapons of Warfare, we start to see more why that animosity exists.  And, Brad, despite my original desire to have the Circle working together (which is still one of the most essential elements that must happen to defeat Rondel), they really do become dysfunctional in the second book.   But even then, unity of spirit proves out to be key.

About The Chronicles of Amber: Believe it or not, I found a copy at a used book store of the original 5 books of Amber and I read them again between the times of writing Book 1 and Book 2.  And I saw again that the brothers and sisters thirst for power, not only caused them to want to kill each other, but it was almost the death of their world.  In The Center Circle Chronicles, the thirst for power might not be as obvious nor are there blatant attempts on each other's lives (save for one scene in The Weapons of Warfare), but deep down I think you see some of the same hidden motivations.

Brad: Talk to me about what it means to be a Christian author. Do you feel a responsibility beyond that of merely writing a great story, in terms of content or spiritual themes?

Steve: Because I make no bones about being a Christian author, having written devotionals and other Christian related writings, I have to make sure that I do not write in such a way that dishonors God.  I do not believe that all my books must be Christian in nature.  However, they should never go against Christianity.  Let me explain.  Although my novels have all had a basis in Christianity, my coaching basketball books are not necessarily Christian books.  However, as a Christian, even when writing books about coaching, I use Christian principles.

The Center Circle Chronicles  is not really designed to be a life lesson-teaching type series, although there are good principles that people can learn.  For instance, the feelings of faith, which is the power behind the great things that the Circle members can do, is analogous to the power we as Christians have in our faith in God.  Landru’s sword has the ability to be used, not just as a weapon, but as a guide.  Many will recognize this right away as a reference to the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.  But even beyond those (and many other examples throughout the series), there is a larger arc within the series concerning the power and deceit of evil and how one day the great King will return to free the world of evil.

In some of my future writings that are not set in the fantasy world, but in the real world with real-type people, I feel that those novels need to have a deeper message than just an allegory.  These books are much more real life people facing real life situations.  So on those cases, it is essential that I bring God’s truth into my writing so that readers who relate to the situation can see God’s way of handling the situation.

Brad: It will be interesting to see how faith works in your non-fantasy work in the future, then. Now, if I held a gun to your head (sorry, I didn’t expect this to get violent) and asked you to name your favorite book, what would it be? Why?

Steve: The quick and easy answer to that question is the Bible as it is not only God’s Word with practical applications for our everyday life, but it is full of some very great stories.  I especially love reading the stories and the stories behind the stories of the Old Testament to go along with the deep spiritual truths of the New Testament.

As far as other books, I would say that I don’t usually read fiction books over and over again.  There are occasions where I might read one sometime then several years later decide to read it again.  However, if I would have to choose, my favorite (nonBible) book—based on the fact that I have read it many times—is a book called Leading With the Heart by Mike Krzyzewski, the head men’s basketball coach at Duke Univeristy.  As a basketball coach, I read this book every September as a reminder of how I wanted to lead my team.

Brad: What about your favorite author (quickly—I don’t want anyone to see me holding this gun)?

Steve: That’s a very hard question for me to answer.  I am one of those people who have so many different interests.  As you no doubt have guessed, I like fantasy books.  But I also love reading books on leadership. I enjoy reading lawyer books and political thrillers. 

If I had to narrow it down to some favorite authors, I would say probably Ted Dekker and John Grisham.

Brad: What are you working on right now? Tell us about it.

Steve: Right now I am busy writing what I call a sports romance book.  It takes place in a small town where a new coach, Eric Rightman, gets hired to coach the school’s basketball team that had not had a winning team in over a decade.  Lacey Littleton has reluctantly returned to her home town as a reporter for the town’s newspaper.  Both are running from something in their past, one from a group of people and one from a darker moment in her past. 

I am also in the editing stage of a second volume of a monthly men’s devotional called 31 Days to Becoming a Man of God.  It has 31 devotional entries that center around lessons for men that we learn from the men in the Bible. 

For those wondering about the third book of The Center Circle Chronicles, that one is the next one on my list to write.  My hope is to begin writing that one about Thanksgiving and it will be available sometime in the spring of 2013.

Brad: One last question: I’m sure many of your readers are dying to know why Landon is so enamored with the original Star Trek series when Deep Space Nine is clearly the superior Trek.

Kirk tries and fails to be more awesome than Sisko
Steve: Well, that answer is an easy one.  And it has nothing to do with which one is superior.  Without giving too much away, Landon is involved in some sort of time travel experience.  So the Original Star Trek series is what he grew up on before the orphanage burned down.  With that said, from a purely literary standpoint, more people recognize the name of Captain James T. Kirk than they do Benjamin Sisko. 

Hi, it’s me, Brad, again. Thanks for joining us and, in case you missed that, Steve Biddison, author of The Center Circle Chronicles, practically just almost implied that Deep Space Nine was better than the original series. I couldn’t agree more. Now, everyone go and pick up a copy of The Center Circle to thank Steve for swinging by!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Relationship Wasteland

“Mojave, mo’ problems—am I right?”

Even though I have other unplayed games that I’m looking forward to, I decided to pick up Fallout: New Vegas for a second run-through, to revisit the Mojave Wasteland and immerse myself in the war between the New California Republic, Caesar’s Legion and the mysterious Mr. House. In games that allow different morality choices, I invariably play as a good guy (well, girl, if it’s an option) on my first play. If the game is good enough, I’ll come back later with malevolence to see how things change by being despicable. Truth is that I never quite immerse  myself in the roles to the point where I’m as consistently cruel as I should be. . .but oh well. My evil characters have a benevolent streak.

The Fallout series is one of the major video game franchises that attempts to make moral choices important (also included in this list, to greater or lesser effect, is Mass Effect and Fable). The games give the player a great deal of freedom to take many different approaches, but these decisions are not made in a vacuum. Your choices have an impact on how different people that you encounter view you and treat you. A Google search suggests that there are well over 100 quests (some short, some long and some hidden) in the game but one cannot possibly complete all in one playthrough, as there are many different factions with different goals and one cannot fully satisfy one without negative consequences in the others. In addition, the fact that the game allows so much freedom makes it very possible to burn bridges outside the actual quests; say the wrong thing or kill the wrong shopkeeper and you can shut down multiple quest opportunities just like that. There were people who trusted me when I played as a good guy who would have nothing to do with me when I played as a villain, and thus didn’t offer me quests that I had completed the last time I played the game.

Like in the Fallout universe, our choices and decisions do not exist in a vacuum. The good and bad decisions we make can have long lasting consequences, some positive, some negative and some endlessly complicated. In fact, no video game can hold a candle to the complexity of real life. What is “fair” rarely comes into play because we are complicated creatures with our own hopes and fears and desires—and it can be difficult to live a life that offends no one or makes no waves (1 Tim. 2:2).

There are some who will look at that last line and say, “Who cares if we offend someone? The message of Jesus Christ offends some people” (Matt. 11:6)! True enough. But there is a difference between offending for the sake of godliness, for the sake of Christ, and offending because we are selfish.

Permit me to use alcohol as an example. From a biblical perspective, it is not a sin to drink but it is a sin to get drunk (Eph. 5:18, as just one example). Now, there are teetotalers among us and I have no problem with any individual choosing to abstain completely—I hate the taste of alcohol and imbibe very rarely—so long as they do not go too far and try to legalistically control others, or to twist the Scriptures to support their extreme opinion (which you can definitely find online; how sad that they must twist Christ’s turning water into wine to the point of flat-out contradiction to fit their weak position). However, these teetotalers can be a vocal bunch to the extent that many in the world are under the impression that drinking at all is against the Bible. As a result, for a Christian to drink or purchase alcohol can, depending on their community and who sees it, seriously hurt their testimony. It can push some farther from Christ.

Not even an appletini is enjoyable enough to risk that outcome, is it?

Many in our culture will not appreciate this reality, but I can back it up biblically. This is precisely what Paul is talking about in 1 Cor. 9: giving up that which is his right for the sake of the message of the gospel. There is nothing wrong with doing that which you have the moral and legal right to do—but if it conflicts with the gospel, then we must look at what is the priority, and I think it would be sinful to prioritize our own selfish desires over the power of the gospel! Even American Christianity tends to be very concerned with preserving our rights, but Paul gave up every one if the cause of the gospel could be furthered by his sacrifice.

It takes a fairly major paradigm shift. Our choices are not made in a vacuum and they affect those around us. We will make a different decision—in some situations—depending on where our focus is and where our heart lies: if our ultimate goal and focus is on pointing to Christ, imagine how much that is perfectly acceptable we would be willing to excise because our goal is that much greater; if our focus is on our own comfort, we will only pursue God’s purposes when it is convenient for us, and we will not sacrifice (or not sacrifice much) for His Kingdom.

The thought of living in a way to please other people can make you just bristle with indignation. But if we do not have a good relationship with those that God has put in our lives, how can we ever hope to be used to bring them to Christ? And if we are living in such a way that makes us—and, by extension, the One we represent—detestable or distasteful to our neighbors, then we cannot kid ourselves that we are worth very much in this life, can we?

In Fallout: New Vegas, even horrendous reputations can be repaired by taking on some important missions for that faction. You could kill a squadron of New California Republic troops but then still work your way back to the good graces of the leadership by performing some random favors. It may be ambitious, but it’s still a video game, after all. When we damage relationships with people in real life, regaining their trust and respect is a much greater challenge and will take a long time. That time could be used by the Holy Spirit to draw a soul to Jesus through a godly life of friendship and servanthood, but now it is wasted.

We need to understand that we love God by loving others. Living a godly life may cause some to despise us regardless of how pleasant we are (Matt. 10:22), but how many others will end up bowing down before Jesus as Lord because of the light they see shining in us? Remember: we are to be salt and light (Matt. 5:13-16)—and salt tastes good!