The Sword & Sorcery genre of fiction has been around for the best part of 100 years now. The term was first used by Michael Moorcock in 1961 to describe the kind of fiction being written by the creator of Conan the Barbarian, (Robert E Howard), in the 1930s and other authors after Howard who developed sword-swinging characters who battled the forces of evil. These days, George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones occupies the forefront of the genre, trailing a long list of also-rans and wanna-be’s.
As an offshoot, there’s also a genre which has been described as Sword & Sandal. These fictionalised accounts of ancient or biblical history were notoriously filmed in po-faced Technicolor by Hollywood in the 1950s, but in recent years, with advances in special effects, the film industry has reinvented the genre. Russel Crowe slaughtered the Roman Empire in Gladiator, Gerard Butler led the Spartans, and there have been many more. Biblical epics have also been retold (with Christian Bale leading the Exodus, Russell Crowe [again] as Noah, and so forth). Similarly, the Percy Jackson films have re-imagined the gods of Olympus, while elsewhere, the Titans continue to stalk the earth and Thor gets all moody with his mallet, Mjolnir.
So: millions of people are interested in a mix of ancient, medieval or dystopian worlds, which are interlaced with magic and/or the power of the gods. Interestingly, stories with a Christian dimension, whether they are set in the past or the future, seem generally to be classified as Fantasy. It seems to me that there is a ‘missing’ fictional genre and the phrase: Sword & Spirituality seems to fit the bill.
This is the ‘genre’ of my experimental novel: Kaleb’s Testimony. The story is set in a post-apocalyptic future where the central characters are motivated not only by the challenge of their surroundings but also by their Christian faith. If the purpose of fiction is to both entertain and explore the central issues of life, it seems bizarre that so much fiction is ‘faith-free’. While most people (including me) shy away from fiction which is simply thinly-disguised evangelism, surely there’s a place for honest faith-reflection in the fantasy arena? It may be that other authors are not mad enough to mix zombies with Christianity (!), but I suspect that the lack of such fiction is more likely because publishers, when pitched the idea, ask: “But what genre is it?” And, when there is no reply, the pitch ends there.
Thinking it through, any work of fiction begins with the postulation: “If life were like this… then people would react like that…” So: if the world was actually post-apocalyptic; (without power, where machinery no longer worked, and where the few remaining human beings had fled into communities); then what would these communities be like? They would probably be similar to medieval villages. Add to this an external threat which would keep them within their settlements, (in this case zombies outside the walls), and it’s easy to imagine that these communities would quickly become insular. And, if the world was actually overtaken by this kind of cataclysm, how would Christians react? What would their hermeneutic be? Which passages of scripture would make sense to them? How would they continue to connect with God? This is the world occupied by the Christian Oblate Zombie Hunters. It is, of course, complete fiction – but the characters who live in this fantasy world come from a real-faith direction and it seems to me that the genre is: Sword & Spirituality!
Kaleb’s Testimony is currently under review by Kindle Press.
The Sponge on the Cross
When Jesus was crucified, and close to death, he was offered a drink of sour wine – which may or may not have contained a drug. We know this.
John records that a sponge was dipped in this wine, put on ‘a branch of hyssop’, and offered to Jesus. We are familiar with the significance of this (the blood of the Passover lambs was smeared on the door lintels with hyssop: Exodus 12:22).
Matthew & Mark, though, record that the sponge was on a stick (Matthew 27:48; Mark 15:36). Is this significant in any way or just a record of what happened?
A few months ago, I watched a documentary about the Romans. There was even a section about Roman lavatories! They were communal and people sat in a line with a running-water gully in front of their feet. When they had relieved themselves, they dipped a sponge into the water and cleaned themselves. Their ‘toilet paper equivalent’ looked like this:
So – here’s the thing. Who was standing at the foot of the cross? Not the disciples, or Jesus’ followers, they were either long gone or standing at a distance (Luke 23:49). The people at the foot of the cross were Roman soldiers – and all of them would have had a sponge on a stick in their packs.
Is the sponge on a stick significant? Absolutely! The last thing Jesus did, before he spoke his final words and died, was to drink from that sponge. According to Matthew & Mark, Jesus’ final action was, in every sense, to suck up human filth.
Have a Blessed Easter.
How TV Killed Church Leadership
I guess that I, along with many Church leaders, have been grappling with the subject of Church Leadership for a long time. Many churches have experienced numerical decline, but the lack of leaders is not just a facet of fewer people in Church. Amongst those who do attend, there seems to be a growing reluctance to ‘lead’. Why? Many will offer complex spiritual reasons for the shift but I, in a nutshell, think it’s TV.
Let me explain. Those of us who are approaching 60 years of age, (or are already in our early 60s) are the first generation in history to be ‘TV children’. That is to say: TV has been part of our lives for almost as long as we can remember and, for many of us, it has been a constant companion. Does this matter? I think it does…
For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that church leadership is made up of three generations: the retired, those of middle years and the young. In the past, a large chunk of Church Leadership was undertaken by the newly retired and, for most of my ministry, that has meant that a great deal of Church Leadership was done by first, my grandparents’ generation, and then my parents’ generation. My grandparents and parents, though, were not TV generations; they were social-group generations. In their leisure time they joined clubs and societies and they enjoyed holding ‘rank’ within them. When they joined churches, they brought the same attitude with them – they joined, they contributed and they sought to attain ‘rank’. Now we all know that the seeking after rank wasn’t always healthy, but the church had leaders – even if it wasn’t always for the right reason!
What of my generation; the first TV generation? In our leisure time, we like to watch; we don’t join – we observe. We also expect the programs to be made for us by other people and, if we don’t like what’s on, we just change channel. We don’t explain why we do this, or write letters about it or discuss how the program might be improved, we just change the channel. Interestingly, over the past 20 years, our TV watching has been refined because the program makers have increasingly invited us to criticise (ie vote). So now we criticise as well as changing channel! I won’t bother joining the dots between this attitude to TV and our attitudes to church – it’s so clear I don’t think it needs any further explanation.
My wife, Gill, also pointed out to me that for the last 10-15 years, with the introduction of digital TV, we record programs and watch them when we want to, not when they are broadcast. Presumably, with the introduction of YouView (internet catch-up TV), this attitude to TV will increase. Of course, when this attitude is transferred to Church it gives rise to individuals wanting what they want, when they want it, regardless of what anyone else is doing.
So, until now, the church has been led by the generations before us: the generations who came from a culture of joining, social interaction, contribution and a desire to attain ‘rank’. People of my generation, though, and of the two generations ‘below’ me are TV generations. We observe, criticise, vote with our feet and increasingly expect what we want when we want it.
And where does this cultural shift come from? TV!
So – is there a solution? I don’t know, but I do think that there are 3 possible directions in which to find one:
1) Be pro-TV. Collude with the culture. Provide the best, most professional ‘show’ that you can and attract as many passive (paying) observers as you can.
2) Be anti-TV. Make a stand against the culture. In the same way that previous generations stood against certain cultural norms, call people to ‘TV-abstinence’. Insist on Christians getting rid of TV altogether.
3) Be of-but-not-in the TV culture. When it comes to Church, be collaborative and encourage the ‘viewers’ to become ‘program makers’.
I have no idea how this will playout in the years to come but, when it comes to the Church of England, of one thing I am certain. In the past, the C of E relied on retired clergy to ‘fill the gaps and prop up the system’. Previous generations, with their attitude of joining etc were happy to do this. I suspect, however, that we are now on the foothills a new generation of retired clergy who won’t want to do this. They will contribute, yes, but they will not regard it as their task to keep the Church propped up. It is not, after all, their (our) culture….