Escape from Hell: Too Tough to Read?

I’m not sure what to do with my novelette Escape from Hell. This is a topic I’ve written about before and it’s still ruminating around my brain without an answer appearing. The story is a faith-based fictional story about a man who spends time in both Heaven and Hell. (Spoiler-free post).

The Heaven section (if I am allowed to praise my own work) is heart-warming, uplifting and a worthy attempt at touching the wondrous nature of what I believe Heaven will be. I think that’s a fair evaluation. It will be so different and so amazing that it is beyond comprehension. I thoroughly enjoyed writing the ‘Heaven’ section and love how it’s turned out, and I think most readers will also enjoy it.

The premise I have constructed for Hell is really clever (or at least I think so). However, it’s not a pleasant place. In writing it, I’ve really let my imagination ‘go dark’. (I should caveat this by saying I don’t read or write horror normally). There has been no point where I’ve pulled back from writing something because it was too evil in my descriptions.

That is not to say I’ve picked the worst things I can think of; I haven’t. It isn’t horror-porn but it is horrific-by-intent. I’ve taken literally the maxim that characters should be tortured by the plot. I’ve committed that torture with acts, events, circumstances, relationships and the kitchen sink (okay, not the last one). And the Hell section comprises the majority, in length, of the novelette.

Therein lies the problem: Even reading it, will push a lot of people well out of their comfort zone. The first Hell-based chapter already had a beta-reader squirm. However I think the first chapter is like O[rientation]-week at university, you don’t do much: it’s all fluff and bubbles. I’d say it was a 3 on the nasty-dial. Future chapters dial it up closer to 8. (My dear mum does an editing pass for me to catch what my eyes miss, and I’m not even sure I want her precious and timid soul to read any of the darker chapters!)

If a level 3 causes discomfort, what will an 8 do? Will the readers simply disconnect because it is so unpleasant? For an analogy of how I feel I could use Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ or Hacksaw Ridge. Neither movie is enjoyable movie to watch and yet I feel as though both are important to watch. Each movie contains unpleasant truths, very graphically displayed, that are valuable to be remembered. The Passion of the Christ reminds us of the incredible cost Jesus paid to offer a path of reconciliation. Hacksaw Ridge portrays the brutal nature of war which ought to help it be not entered into lightly.

I’m not sure how to deal with this situation. If you have any ideas, I’d really appreciate hearing them in the comments below. I can think of a few possibilities, but I feel as though I need more tools in my toolbox as though I haven’t yet discovered the right answer or combination of answers. And I’d always prefer to have too many options – even some silly ones – because the right answer could be in a synergistic mix.

The simple answer, of course, would be to dial back on the graphic nature of Hell. Take it from and 8 down to a 5. Tone down the violence, obscure the threat, make it a little more pleasant. I could have a good crack at making it more palatable while still keeping the not-a-nice-place vibe. Doing so might mean that it gets more readers who can persist through to the end, not put-off by the yuck-factor.

I am reluctant to do that. I believe Hell is going to be horrific, and I want my character’s experience to be that. In the same way that I think Heaven will be better than we can comprehend, so too I believe Hell will be worse than the human mind can conceive. I’ve taken a stab at describing a pretty diabolical Hell, and I want it to stand out as much as The Passion of the Christ and Hacksaw Ridge. These movies showed something important; they were not feel-good movies where Jesus’ trip to the cross and the Allies victory were Sunday picnics.

Another option is to break up the horror by interspersing it with intermissions. Scene(s) that provide the readers a chance to take a ‘breather’. Something lighter and happier. I’m not a big fan of flashbacks or dream sequences, normally. Initially I didn’t like this idea, but now it’s growing on me. If done correctly, the breather could also fit nicely into the narrative, and might also intensify the ‘dark’ scenes.

Another options is to bring forward the intrigue in the story. Provide the reader with a promise of the direction of the story to encourage them to continue turning (and actually reading) pages.

Of course it’s not all about how I’m writing it. I can also get a better understanding of how if affects the reader by getting more alpha readers. What affects one reader might not affect another. I need more people to properly understand what buttons my story is pushing, and how far those buttons can be pressed.

If you have any thoughts or suggestions on how I could tackle this issue, let me know.

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Living Water: No Turning Back

This post is loosely based on chapter 4 of Living Water by Brother Yun. It was my launching-pad and thoughts around a related theme. The chapter is titled ‘No Turning Back’.

At the beginning of the chapter Yun references John 15:16 where Jesus says,

“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last.”

I’m fast approaching middle-age and I have to ask myself the difficult question of how much fruit that-will-last have I produced in my life? If I were to die today, how much of my influence would echo through to eternity? I don’t ask that question for a desire for my own legacy, but to question if I have spent my time well.

The question is easier ignored because the answer is confronting: precious little. I could attempt to justify myself by defining the question more broadly and try to wriggle off the hook. I could probably even make a semi-convincing argument. The truth remains the truth, no matter how much I dislike its implications.

I resemble a cheap fruitcake. Being a fruitcake there ought to be much fruit; and yet it looks like the baker has thrown the fruit from across the room, and whatever small amount happens to reach the the mixing bowl is the end product.

Earlier in John 15, Jesus says,

‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. … This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. (v1-2, 8)

Honestly, I am in need of a good prune. I need to make conscious decisions to put my growth-energy into fruit, not leaves or limbs. I want my life to amount to more eternal fruit. Not out of fear, but as an act of love.

Yun goes on in the chapter to talk about how we should seek God’s plan for our lives. He assures us that if we listen, we will hear it. More importantly, we should accept that there will be opposition to any plan that comes from God. There will be vicious attacks from the enemy and friendly-fire from those who should be allies. “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.” (2 Tim. 3:12–13)

As Jesus says in Luke 9:23, “‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.’” One does not ‘take up a cross comfortably. The cross is an instrument of humiliation, suffering and ultimately death. And we’re called to take it up daily.

We will be humiliated because the world at-large will not accept the Word of God. The world mocks the wisdom of God and think itself more wise. We will suffer at the hands of the enemy, just as Jesus did and many thousands of his disciples have throughout history. Some will be martyred in a single act of brutality; others will lay down their lives in a daily surrender. It’s a cross; not a silken robe. Stepping up for Jesus is stepping out into a battleground, make no mistake – but don’t back away.

Who in their right mind chooses to enter a war? The brave, who choose to swallow their natural fear for a greater good. Those who put others before themselves and want to prevent suffering. Those who are willing to take a stand against evil. Those who believe in the rightness of their cause and trust their Commander.

Jesus asks it of us and as Christians we’ve said that he’s Lord of our life. That should be the end of all negotiations. Jesus came to the world, and to the cross, to provide a means by which people could be reconciled back into relationship with God. Those who don’t know him are the reason why we should carry our cross. As the recipients of God’s grace, sharing the good news should be natural, if we can just learn to humble ourselves and value the opinion of God more than that of our family, colleagues, neighbours and world. (Keeping the good news to ourselves would actually be the most malicious hateful thing we could do).

Prune at will, Lord God. Join me, brothers and sisters, in bearing much fruit and making the vineyard flourish.

Living Water: Forgiveness

This is the third post looking at chapter 3 of Brother Yun’s Living Water. The first two chapters were covered in previous posts on Repentance and Lessons from Esau (better termed, Life Derailment).

I believe that forgiveness is an important topic whether or not you ascribe to a faith. In our lives all of us would have come across, and then likely runaway from, bitter people. A lack of forgiveness causes a person to become bitter and that bitterness leaks out, polluting their lives and those around them. Bitterness is toxic and drives most sane people away; they aren’t enjoyable to be around.

It is easy to be bitter. As humans we can easily hurt others, intentionally and unintentionally, through our words and actions. I remember hurtful (albeit somewhat true) things that were said to me more than twenty years ago. Many people have suffered physical and emotional wounds by others, or events in their lives, that have left deep scars. Bitterness isn’t a dormant rock which weighs you down; it is a cancer which spreads and affects your whole life. Unchallenged, it grows in size and over time will suck the joy and hope from your life. It will cause you to become thorn-like, which pushes others away and stops you from being embraced.

Brother Yun uses the analogy of bitterness being a weed in the garden of your heart. He makes a valid statement in today’s beauty-and-success-conscious world,

“Many people spend a lot of time and effort trying to beautify the outside of their lives, pulling up the surface weeds when really they need to go below the surface and dig up the root.”

Forgiveness can be a challenge. Brother Yun, who has suffered brutal torture in Chinese re-education centres has a right (humanly-speaking) to be bitter and yet he says,

“there is absolutely no point in withholding forgiveness towards anyone, regardless of what they have done.” Yun understands that unforgiveness actually does more damage to the person holding onto it, than the one they are angry at. As the saying goes, bitterness is like (you) drinking poison and waiting for your enemy to die.

While reconciliation requires two people, forgiveness only requires one. And forgiveness doesn’t mean letting someone escape justice for their actions, only that we “release our own desire for vengeance and leave it in God’s hands.”

Forgiveness for a Christian is even more important. Actually, it’s mandatory according to Jesus. If we want to be forgiven for our sins, then we have to forgive those who sin against us (Matthew 6:14-15). Considering our job as Christians is to be ambassadors of reconciliation, it makes sense that the first place we have to do that is in our own lives. A bitter person can hardly tell others the good news about Jesus’ love. Not without it being a sad (and somewhat delusional) and unconvincing offer.

In my experience forgiveness in “challenging” situations is more than a one-time event. Our heart might struggle, wavering between anger and forgiveness. Just like a wound might need dressing multiple times to fully heal, so sometimes we have to make the choice to forgive. And that can be very hard.

What I find most personally challenging is not forgiving others, but forgiving myself for the mistakes I make. I’ve done and said dumb things which have hurt others, more often than I would like to admit. Even when I know better. And then my natural inclination is to dwell on the failures. I need to extend to myself the same forgiveness God has for me. Negative self-talk unchallenged, wreaks a dreadful cost in our lives. Allow conviction, not condemnation. Only our enemy, Satan, wants us to be trapped in the despair of condemnation.

The best way I can end this post is to quote the challenge Yun also posed:

“Dear friend, I encourage you to put this book down and spend some time in prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to show you if there is anyone you hold unforgiveness towards in your heart.”

And I’d add, including to yourself. Allow Jesus’ grace to extend to your innermost being.

Further thoughts on the Folau saga

A reader, bmadtiger, recently responded to an earlier post I made about Rights and Responsibilities which was addressing the Israel Folau saga that has been playing out in the Australian media for months.

A Short Background

Israel Folau, professional rugby union player instagrammed a biblical quote warning about the consequences of sin according to the Christian faith. Person(s) unknown complained. His employer, Rugby Australia, tore up his multi-million dollar contract and banned him from playing for life. Media piled-on. Controversially, Folau then raised $2m crowd-sourced to contribute to his defence.

I began writing a response to bmadtiger… only for it to lengthen to the point where I thought I’d make my response into a post. Then I sat on the post for a time and let it percolate…

bmadtiger’s comment had directed my attention to an article by Ray Barnett, A Two Edged Sword: What Might Justice Look Like. While willing to support Folau as an individual, Barnett’s concern is that a win for Folau might inadvertently strip Christian organisation’s of their ability to sack on religious grounds of staff. (i.e. a school teacher with beliefs or acts not aligned with the Christian values).

It could become a double-edged sword, and I also see bigger dangers which I’ll address soon. First though, why I hope it does not.

The Legal Question

(I am not a lawyer. This is what I hope would be the law: which ought to be common-sense enacted for the greater good of the community).

Folau was essentially sacked for breaching his contract; presumably for bringing Rugby Australia into disrepute. Folau’s primary job is to chase a football and score points. As a part of that job, he is a representative of the sport, to a degree.

The question is, does the religious opinion of an individual, expressed off-field, bring an entire sporting organisation into disrepute? Or is it just a guy who has an opinion which is counter to the majority? I think making the assertion that he has brought the entire sport into disrepute is a hard-sell.

With Rugby players, we mostly want fit people who are good at chasing footballs and colliding with the opposition when required. We don’t really care what their IQ is, and normally if they’re a drug addict or a wife-beater we’ll help rehabilitate them. Folau, aside from his religious beliefs, is a great player and a model citizen, on and off the field.

Contrast that with the hypothetical Christian organisation raised by Barnett. It is a different situation entirely. A Christian organisation, especially a church or school, is understood to be fundamentally Christian as a primary aspect of it’s identity. Taking the “Christian” out of it would be like trying to strip one side of the double helix; a fundamental change and breaking it from what it is supposed to be. Most parents send their children to a school because they want them to have a Christian influence. (At the very least they accept that whilst there they will have a Christian influence).

Now enter the hypothetical ‘wayward’ staff member, who is found to be living a non-Christian lifestyle, or is an atheist in belief. A Christian organisation that became known as non-Christian (or sub-Christian) would quickly suffer reputational damage and lose a significant part of it’s ‘unique selling-point’. The key base of their demographic would vote with their feet.

As an example: A man who is drunk on weekdays but stone-cold sober on weekends, is unfit to counsel alcohol addiction on a Saturday. He doesn’t practice what he preaches. His lifestyle is inconsistent with his advice, and he lacks credibility. The same would be true in a Christian school environment. If the school is purporting to teach pupils how to live a Christian lifestyle, they must be able to demonstrate consistency and integrity to the message. The belief system is critical to what is being offered.

On Reputational Damage

It’s my belief that if ‘reputational damage’ is a key aspect of a contract, then most of Rugby Australia corporate stooges should lose their jobs. Their (mis)handling of this case has done more damage to the sport than Folau’s comments ever did.

Rugby Australia, when confronted with this public relations issue, reached for the nuclear option. They didn’t negotiate, they didn’t fine or suspend him. They banned him for life. In a news.com.au poll, 53% of respondents agreed he should be sacked. That’s 47% who disagreed (133,116 respondents). That’s the nuclear option.

Rugby Australia should have come out and said they completely disagreed with Folau’s opinion, but that he had a right to it. If they wanted to, they could also have negotiated in his contract whatever precautions they wanted. Both parties could then decide if they were willing to sign on the dotted line. I’ve never seen the ball fumbled more as by the Rugby Australia board.

The media too, with almost relentless attacks on everything-Folau has done itself reputational damage. It’s clear bias and desire to execute-by-media has been on full display. Which is tone-deaf of them, considering that in the same survey 72% of 134,558 people thought Australia had become too politically correct. But perhaps they perceive that as 28% who are enlightened and they need to redouble their educational efforts? (/sarc).

A Bigger Threat

In his article Barnett raised the concern of the end of religious exemptions from discrimination claims. He wrote, “If exonerated and reinstated, Israel Folau will become the precedent…”

A precedent will be set, regardless of the outcome. If Folau loses does that mean an employer can claim any politically-incorrect statements are a sackable offence? Will sharing ones faith be considered anathema? Will contributing to the conversation in the ‘public square’ be off-limits even in your own time, at the risk of unemployment?

There are already such cases in Australia where individual activists have weaponised the judicial system to silence their ideological foes. I don’t want more of it.

It is my hope that Folau will honour those Australians who have stood with him, by pushing this until there is a sound-and-beneficial precedent set. It will be the greatest try of his life, and of immeasurable value for all.

Will there be Justice?

As I’ve said, this has played out severely in the media, and touches on some pretty powerful nerves of offence and freedom.

As Barnett wrote,

[Folau] was treated unjustly as the law currently stands. Circumstances do seem to have been manipulated against him. He did appear to run foul of the politically-correct brigade and social warrior commerce with which society has now been saddled.

If a Judge is to make a decision favouring Folau, the Justice must be made of titanium. The media and activists will be applying relentless pressure, with the undertones of carrot and stick. In the Judge’s heart and mind is where the battle will be won or lost.

I hope that the decision will be made with common sense. Common sense seems in short supply these days; one can never know if it’ll be there when it’s needed. We’d be foolish not to be appealing to God that his Justice would be delivered, albeit through a human justice system in this case.

Final Thoughts

Ray Barnett put it well, so I’ll let him finish this post:

In many of the serious documents coming from the first few centuries of our faith, when our brothers and sisters faced Roman brutality far greater than we can possibly imagine, they did not—nor could they—argue at law for their rights at law. Their defence was their godly lives and the tangible displays of community that saw them cover the loss and deprivation of any and all members who suffered the attacks of the authorities. Absorbing them into the community and family that transcended all human associations, providing for lost income or resources.

This did two things. It provided for needs in a society in which there was no government assistance. More significantly, it gave a visible demonstration of a better Kingdom. It showed that Christ was able to create one new community, one new people, out of men and women from many different racial and social backgrounds

God’s Intimacy with Us

Today I read Jeremiah 1:5 where God says to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” We can often read words quickly, and miss the full measure of those words. Before I formed you in the womb I knew you. When God says, “Before I formed you…” he is claiming personal and intimate involvement in shaping us. That is profound.

In the modern age we understand biology and know how we as humans are made, but that can also cause us to lose sight of the why we are made. A painting is made by placing paint on a canvas. That describes the process in rough terms, ignoring the myriad of creative decisions the artist makes, and the skills with which they paint. What if God – in his infinite knowledge – knows who we will become as an individual and, like an artist creating a loved-masterpiece, decides which chromosomes should be switched on? What if we are not just a product of cell division; what if cell division was the tool by which God shapes us?

Of course that’s not the only place in the Bible where it talks about God creating us. Psalm 119:73 says, “Your hands formed me…” and in 139:13 David says of God, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my master’s womb… My frame was not hidden from you… your eyes saw my unformed body.” The Psalms are poetic. In the same way songs express emotions, so too do the Psalms describe individual’s understanding and feelings toward God. They are therefore not necessarily fact more than a poetic expression of experiences. Jeremiah 1:5 however is God saying that he formed Jeremiah. And if Jeremiah, why not us too?

Jesus, when describing the care God has for us, and his knowledge of our circumstances, said in Matthew 10:29-30, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.”

And Jesus spoke of the Holy Spirit saying, “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14:26)

Clearly, God is intimately involved in our creation and all that follows afterward.

You and I are not just clumps of cells that happened to win the primordial lottery. We were created by a loving God because he wants a relationship with every one of us.

The Book That Made Your World

Normally I prefer to leave my book reviews until I have finished the book. In the case of The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization by Vishal Mangalwadi I am making an exception.

It is intellectually robust, and thus not a quick read. However in the many pages, Mangalwadi lays out how the Bible – and the Christian faith – was instrumental in creating Western civilization. What sets this book apart from others is that Mangalwadi, can compare and contrast with lived-experience the Christian influence against that of other Eastern religions including Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

It is a book of solid intellectualism, rationally and carefully constructed logic; but that doesn’t mean it is uninteresting. With personal anecdotes and reflections, it has a living, breathing heart behind the words. And from the first chapter, “The West Without its Soul: From Bach to Cobain“, it retains an essence of the here-and-now, even as it looks backward through history to explain why.

There are many, many worthy quotes – and several dozen are applicable in our current environment:

“the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find out why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so, by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. . . . our own age is also “a period” and certainly has, like all periods, its own illusions.”

C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy.

Starting with music, and moving onto literature, Mangalwadi illustrates just how all-pervasive the Bible is in our culture. Mangalwadi shows that the Bible – not Greek and Roman culture – have influenced every aspect of the West.

Homer wouldn’t pick any of us as heroes. But all of us can be like Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. If extraordinary things can happen to simple people, if through the obedience of faith we can become a blessing to our neighbors and to the nations of the earth, then all of us can be heroes. … Transformation and development of character is an important feature of the Bible that has had enormous impact on modern writing. Homer’s heroes don’t change. But Jacob does. He begins his career by deceiving his father, stealing his brother’s blessings, and cheating his father-in-law. His experiences with God transform him into a very different person. He then blesses his children and grandchildren with a prophetic faith in the future.

I recommend this book as an educational experience, that will grow your appreciation for the Word of God and the saints who went before us.

Living Water: Lessons from Esau

When I was reading the excellent Living Water some months ago I’d planned to write blog posts for each chapter. After discovering Kindle didn’t allow chapter-only exports I had to delay my plans. Because of this post #1 on Repentance sat alone for a long time.

Chapter 2 of Living Water is entitled ‘Lessons from Esau’. Months ago I sat looking at this chapter, trying to extract my blog post. It wasn’t coming to me, no matter how hard I tried so I planned to skip writing about the chapter. And yet, now I see it. Clearly my heart or mind wasn’t in the right place at the time. This post, therefore, is chapter 2, ‘Lessons from Esau’ (which relates to Genesis 25:29-34).

The chapter starts by quoting Revelations 3:11-13, 19. The first two sentences stand out to me.

“I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God.”

If Jesus tells us to ‘hold on’ and ‘to overcome’ then there is an adversary who is trying to take ‘our crown’ from us. Satan will do all he can to steal our identity in Christ, to weaken our faith and to make us ineffective spiritually. I don’t think he cares how he does it: it could be through physical distraction, emotional injury or spiritual apathy. We need to realise the tug of war is real, ongoing, and the costs of losing are personally high.

Verse 19 says, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent.”

Godly rebuke and discipline is given to us because of God’s love for us. But discipline is only beneficial if we accept the correction. I paraphrase that, ‘Listen carefully and respond accordingly.’

When I was first trying to find my ‘post’ I was looking at the chapter too narrowly. I read it as primarily talking about sexual sin, pride and greed and how they’ve derailed so many high-profile Christians. However, that isn’t what Yun’s talking about. He writes, “Satan is an expert at tempting us to fall.” I’ve heard it said before that Satan isn’t all-knowing, but he’s had plenty of experience in working out which buttons to press. Yun recounts from his own life how his pride resulted in him being imprisoned in Myanmar because he stopped listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

It doesn’t matter what our weakness is, we need to guard against the enemy exploiting it. As Yun writes the following (taking Esau’s bowl of stew as a metaphor):

“There may be a bowl of stew in your life as well. If you make a wrong decision and partake of it, it can destroy your life and bring you untold misery and pain.”

Which raises the question, what are the ‘bowls of stew’ in my life? What are the things that are more likely to distract me from the things of God? I think it’s important to identify the areas of vulnerability and bring those areas before God in prayer and surrender. It could be rewards (e.g. promotion, money, fame) or pleasures (activities, sports, relationships) or even attitudes (cynicism, independence from God, selfishness). Yun advises,

“This doesn’t mean that we control ourselves, but it means we must submit to the Holy Spirit who lives inside of us and who helps us to fear God and hate sin. …it is only the grace of God that can help and train us to overcome temptation.” (italics his)

I know that there are areas which I need to reflect on and take to God. Two scriptures stand out to me.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5)

This passage does not say that there isn’t a speck in our brother’s eye, but that we first must see clearly before we can reliably help our brother. And also,

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6,7).

It is all too easy to get tied up in worry, even worrying about ‘good things’. We aren’t supposed to worry; we should take things to God. Worry crushes our spirit, faith that God’s looking after something can give us peace and confidence.