Prince of Mangar: An Action-Packed Fantasy Serial (My First Fiction Serial on Wattpad)

Nathan Ransford’s eyes burned with sweat. Real warriors don’t sweat this much, do they? Yet here he was, decked out in full armor, sitting atop a white stallion….and sweating profusely.

The youngest son of the king, Nathan was about to take part in his first battle. Shifting uncomfortably in the saddle, Nathan looked over at his older brother, Philip Ransford, Crown Prince of the Mangarian Federation. Approaching his thirtieth year, Nathan’s oldest brother was both regal and relaxed on his war mount. Strong as an ox, and devilishly handsome, Philip was an objec23t of desire for women and a source of envy for men.

Why Philip wasn’t sweating was something Nathan couldn’t explain. Nathan’s sweat was driving him crazy. Sure, his helmet was open-faced, as were all Mangarian helmets. But he would still have to remove it to get to his forehead. And then there was the matter of his gauntlets. Running a metal glove over his head wouldn’t do much good. And the idea of half-undressing on the battlefield to deal with his perspiration didn’t seem too gallant or heroic. Basically, he’d have to deal with it.

Trying to take his mind off his discomfort, Nathan allowed his gaze to follow a scavenger gliding effortlessly through the cloudless sky. It was as if it anticipated the carnage about to be unleashed below. As if it knew there would be plenty to flesh upon which to feed.

Nathan and Philip, mounted on horseback and resplendent in their silver armor and crimson capes, sat on a hill overlooking the spirited rebel army beneath them. Nathan detected only a slight movement of Philip’s head as the Crown Prince surveyed the field below. Behind them were 1,500 Mangarian footmen, formed precisely in three lines. The Mangarian infantry were bolstered by approximately 300 archers and 500 cavalry. Red Eagle banners flew proudly above them.

Forming up on the lush plain below were bands of Falendor warriors, attired in padded leather shirts, a smattering of kilts or leggings, and the occasional helmet or shield. Their faces painted for war, they raised their swords and pikes in defiance of the army on the hillside overlooking them. They chanted, banging their shields and stomping their feet. Nathan watched as Falendor warlords circulated among them, barking for their warriors to adjust their lines.

“Numbers?” asked Philip.

“Our scouts count nearly 3000 rebels, your highness,” replied the cavalry commander, General Lochlan.

Philip turned to Nathan, said, “Brother, attend to your archers.”

Nathan nodded tightly, betraying his nervousness. He blinked his eyes several times, trying to clear his vision from the stinging sweat.

“Easy, my brother,” Philip said, placing his arm on his younger brother’s shoulder. “Glory and honor.”

Nathan looked on in glowing admiration as his brother cantered forward, whipping his sword from its scabbard in one graceful sweep. He then spun his horse around to face his army.

“Brothers in arms!” bellowed the crown prince. “Today, we restore justice in this province and bring honor to our Federation!”

Cheers echoed from the ranks. Nathan’s heart swelled.

“Places!” shouted Philip. Officers spread out to their respective positions. The army began to ripple with activity, making its pre-battle adjustments.

You can continue reading Prince of Mangar for FREE at Wattpad. 

Is Truth Dead? How Postmodernism is Reshaping Our Society (and Not for the Better)

Is Truth dead?

That was the question asked by TIME magazine in their March 2017 cover story. Their cover mirrored one of their most famous from 50 years ago, in which they famously asked the question: Is God dead?

The answer to the question about whether Truth is dead seems to be…

YES

And it goes much deeper than Donald Trump or any of our politicians.

The reality is that, when it comes to politics, entertainment, sexuality, gender, education, and religion, the entire concept of “truth” has been reduced to little more than individual opinion and/or societal consensus. While there may be a few hold-outs clinging to traditional thought or old-fashioned mores, the prevailing consensus in most of western society is that truth is relative and must evolve to serve the desires of each person and/or generation. Douglas Groothuis, author of Truth Decay, writes that “the very idea of absolute, objective and universal truth is considered implausible, held in open contempt or not even seriously considered.”

Lest we underestimate the significance of this “truth decay,” Francis Beckwith and Gregory Koukl argue that the infection has decimated our very sense of moral awareness. In their book Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air, Beckwith and Koukl write: “Ours is a generation that has institutionalized moral relativism. We’ve cut our eye-teeth on the philosophy that life’s most sublime goal is to be happy and that virtually any means justifies this self-serving end.”

If Groothuis, Beckwith, and Koukl are correct in describing our culture (and I believe they are), then the reality is clear: postmodernism and relativism have won. Their victory is complete. They reign supreme throughout western culture and society, and their reign is not likely to end anytime soon, if ever.

With each new generation, society further embraces the notion that Truth is simply what you make it. In an article for LifeSite News, Jonathon Van Maren writes: “The vast majority of millennials now believe that each person can define reality for his or herself.”

A few days ago, I published a short book on Wattpad* that explores the demise of truth – and what it portends for the rest of us. The book can be read at NO cost on your PC or mobile device. While I respect everyone’s right of conscience and free expression, I nevertheless believe we must all face up to what we’ve done with the nature of truth. It’s my hope that my short (and free) book, The Death of Truth, will contribute to that important discussion.

 

*Wattpad is an online storytelling community where users post written works such as articles, stories, fan fiction, and poems. They can be enjoyed on your PC or mobile device.

Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Christianity: Is it Wrong to Read Fantasy Books and Stories?

I was a good kid. Most of the time. I had a pretty good reputation with my teachers during my school days. (Since a few of my past teachers might read this blog post, I will qualify that statement by saying there were exceptions. And there’s no need for any teacher to publicly point out those exceptions here. Ahem. Moving on… 🙂 ).

Since I was generally a good kid and didn’t get into trouble much, I was puzzled when my third grade teacher pulled me aside one day and told me not to bring my Star Wars comic book back to school any more. I had been proudly showing it around to my friends. I was a huge Star Wars fan. And this was the 1970s, so the Star Wars craze was just catching on! When I asked him why, he replied with words I’ve never forgotten…

“It’s of the devil.”

The devil? As in Satan!? Satan is behind Star Wars?

To put this into context, I was a student at a private Christian school in Fairfax, Virginia. I would attend this school from third grade all the way through my senior year of high school. Lest I be misunderstood, I have many fond memories of this school and I deeply respect this third grade teacher, who was a big influence in my life. The fact that I disagree (very strongly) with him on this particular issue doesn’t change the fact that I think he is a wonderful man. And I will forever be grateful to him.

My third grade teacher’s opinion (which, admittedly, may have changed in the decades since) was consistent with the strict, conservative Baptist culture of which our Christian school and church was a part. And to this day, there are many Christians who would agree with him. Many Christians today condemn any forms of science fiction or fantasy that involve make-believe magical or supernatural powers, whether we’re talking about Star Wars or Harry Potter. And while many Christians will stop short of condemning science fiction and fantasy books or movies, they are nevertheless uncomfortable with them. And this includes some Christians who enjoy fantasy and science fiction. They enjoy it, but feel guilty for enjoying it. This blog post is written for them.

As a side note…if you are not a Christian, you will probably find this entire subject laughable. If you don’t believe in God, I would encourage you to skip this article and instead watch this video where Dr. William Lane Craig lays out the evidence for God. For the rest of you, I welcome you to read on…

The Bible and Witchcraft

Virtually all Christians have a deep respect for the Bible, and evangelical Christians largely agree that the Bible is the word of God. Bible-believing Christians hold that to disagree with the Bible is to disagree with God. So when the Bible says we are to avoid “mediums” and “necromancers” (Leviticus 19:31) and that “sorcerers” will ultimately be sent to the “lake that burns with fire and sulfur” for all eternity (Revelation 21:8), they take that seriously! And since the Bible also tells us to “avoid the appearance of evil” (I Thessalonians 5:22), many Christians conclude, while others at least sense or feel, that even fictional depictions of sorcery and magic should be avoided.

Let’s pause here and make something very clear: Christians believe God is real and that He has spoken through the Scriptures (i.e., the Bible). Devout Christians believe in heaven, hell, angels, and demons. They believe the supernatural is as real as the natural, and they believe we should take seriously the Bible’s teachings and warnings on the subject. If you’re not a Christian, you may find this entire discussion odd, but please understand that Christians (including yours truly) take God and the Bible very seriously.

In her book Spellbound: The Paranormal Seduction of Today’s Kids, former astrologer Marcia Montenegro warns that we should not take the occult lightly. She defines the occult as “the set of practices related to contacting spirits or false gods, seeking supernatural power, and claiming ways to uncover hidden or secret knowledge.” In other words, the occult constitutes those practices that the Israelites (in the Old Testament) and Christians (in the New Testament) are told to avoid. Unfortunately, in Montenegro’s view, fantasy and paranormal fiction authors present “the occult arts” as “fun” or “as natural abilities, or worse, as advanced wisdom.” And, in some cases, she says fantasy fiction depicts occult practices as “merely imaginary,” when the reality is quite different.

In his foreword for Montenegro’s book, renowned theologian Norman Geisler writes: “The problem in recognizing the ugly nature of the occult and the paranormal is that it is craftily packaged in such beautiful cultural forms. We laughed at witchcraft in the I Dream of Jaennie TV series in the sixties. We were entertained by it in an exciting space drama in Star Wars beginning in the seventies. Now our teens are spellbound by a charming young wizard, Harry Potter.”

The Witch of Endor (by Adam Elsheimer) was an actual witch in the Bible.

While I deeply respect both Montenegro and Geisler, they aren’t providing the full picture of the Bible’s teachings on this subject. For one thing, the Bible talks about actual sorcery and necromancy. The Bible is silent on the topic of whether it’s okay to tell or listen to stories about sorcerers and magic users.

Author Kersley Fitzgerald explains, “Real supernatural power is either from God or demons – period. Fantasy magic isn’t so straight forward.” Take Christian author Donita K. Paul’s DragonKeeper Chronicles series. Magic is represented as a gift granted by God (or, in her world, Wulder). In Ms. Paul’s fantasy world, God gives some of His followers the gift of magic in the same way He gave some the gift of tongues or the gift of prophecy in our world (see I Corinthians). The DragonKeeper stories are definitely fiction, but the protagonist isn’t tapping into demonic power. Quite the contrary, in fact. Thus, the biblical warnings which Montenegro and Geisler cite simply do not apply to the kind of fantasy literature authored by Donita Paul and others like her.

When it comes to how Christians should approach fantasy and science fiction, I believe it’s instructive to consider the Apostle Paul’s teaching on the subject of meat being offered to idols. (Some of what I’m about to say appeared in my review of Montenegro’s book, so if you read that, this will be a little repetitive). In the first century A.D., it was common in the Greco-Roman world for meat sold in the marketplace to have been set aside as a sacrifice to false gods prior to its sale. Jewish converts to Christ would have nothing to do with this meat. They believed no Christian should ever eat meat that had been offered to or dedicated to false gods. This became a source of contention when more Gentiles joined the church — Gentiles who saw no problem with buying and eating such meat. Paul addressed this controversial issue in I Corinthians 8:

1 Now concerning things offered to idols: We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies.

2 And if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know.

3 But if anyone loves God, this one is known by Him.

4 Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one.

5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords),

6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live.

7 However, there is not in everyone that knowledge; for some, with consciousness of the idol, until now eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.

8 But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.

9 But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak.

10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols?

11 And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?

12 But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.

13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.

Now go back and re-read, only this time, replace the references to eating meat offered to idols with references to reading fiction or watching movies or TV programs with fantasy or paranormal elements. I believe that’s what Paul would say on this subject today.

Can Christians Enjoy Science Fiction and Fantasy?

It depends on the book, movie, or TV program.

To completely dismiss all science fiction and fantasy entertainment reflects an unnecessary knee-jerk reaction that’s more based on fear than discernment. Some fantasy stories, like C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia or J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings, are perfectly fine for anyone to enjoy. Other fantasy literature, like the hugely popular Game of Thrones, is in a different category altogether. Martin incorporates elements into his stories that can only be considered perversion. It’s difficult for me to understand how any Christian can enjoy that series (either in book form or on HBO) with a clear conscience.

Christians need to exercise the same amount of discretion when it comes to fantasy as they do when it comes to any literature. Some fantasy stories are clean, fun, and perfectly harmless. Others should be avoided. And the same is true for any genre of literature, including science fiction, historical fiction, romance, westerns, thrillers, mysteries, and so forth. Some books are fine to read; others, not so much.

This question isn’t simply academic for me. As a lifelong fan of science fiction and fantasy, I am now moving from consumer to producer. In the coming months, I’ll be self-publishing some fantasy stories on Amazon Kindle. I do this, even though I’m a devout, Bible-believing Christian and a pastor. I see no inherent conflict between Christianity and fantasy. As I said before, some fantasy stories are perfectly fine. Others, not so much. I plan to write stories obviously in the former category, and not the latter.

Stay tuned to this blog as I will soon be making a FREE SHORT STORY available for those who subscribe to my email notification list. Those on my list will receive advance notice of upcoming books, including a chance to pick up copies for free. I’ll also include some information on books written by friends and colleagues.

When it comes to what you read and what you watch, the key word is… Discernment.

If any of you have any questions about this topic or about my plans to dive into the realm of fantasy fiction, feel free to send me a note through the contact page.

God bless you!

 

Catholic Knights Battle a Demonic Cult: My Review of Steven McKay’s Knight of the Cross

The Knights of St. John battle a satanic cult in Steven A. McKay’s novella Knight of the Cross. Set in 14th century Rhodes, Knight of the Cross serves as a prequel to McKay’s take on the story of Robin Hood. The main protagonist is Sir Richard-at-Lee, a mercenary turned Catholic knight charged with investigating the mysterious disappearance of some of his fellow Hospitaller knights. That investigation leads him, and his loyal sergeant-at-arms, into a terrifying confrontation with a mysterious cult that worships a demon and practices human sacrifice.

Steven McKay hails from Old Kilpatrick, near Glasgow in Scotland. As a writer of historical fiction, McKay credits Bernard Cromwell and Douglas Jackson as among his inspirations. His debut novel Wolf’s Head was a hugely popular new take on the Robin Hood legend and it kicked off his bestselling Forest Lord series. One of the characters in that series is none other than Sir Richard, who serves as the main protagonist in Knight of the Cross. I have not yet read McKay’s Forest Lord series, but after reading Knight of the Cross, I may give it a try. I do enjoy historical fiction, and I’ve always found the Robin Hood legend entertaining.

McKay weaves some supernatural and fantasy elements into Knight of the Cross. Those elements, along with the violence and scenes of human sacrifice, will likely make this novella too disturbing for some readers. It’s certainly not recommended for children. In addition, while ostensibly a Christian novella, McKay has his characters drop the f-bomb a few times. While it may be realistic for battle-hardened warriors to speak with such language, I found it jarring as a Christian reader. Not to mention unrealistic, at least in my opinion, for devout Catholic knights of the 14th century. If one can look past these issues (not that anyone should feel at all obligated to do so), Knight of the Cross is a fast-paced, action-packed read with good (albeit flawed) heroes and thoroughly despicable villains.

My wife and I had the privilege of visiting Rhodes a couple years ago. Part of this story takes place at the Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes, a site that our church group visited. Having some of the novella’s scenes depicted in that palace made this story particularly interesting for me.

I do not recommend this book for kids. If I were to give it a rating, it would be PG-13 and possibly R. Some of my Christian readers will not want to pick it up at all. But those of you who enjoy action-packed historical fiction may want to give it a try.

Heroes Fit For The Times: My Flag Day Review of The Revolutionary War Novel Rise to Rebellion

Today is Flag Day, the day Americans celebrate their flag, which was officially adopted June 14, 1777. It seemed fitting that, on Flag Day, we review a book that fits that theme. Jeff Shaara’s Rise to Rebellion fits that bill. Published in 2001, Rise to Rebellion is the first of a two-part series set during the American Revolution.

Readers of historical fiction, especially military historical fiction, will likely recognize the Shaara name. It was Michael Shaara who wrote the classic Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Killer Angels. That book was later the basis of the movie Gettysburg starring Tom Berenger, Martin Sheen, and Jeff Daniels. The Killer Angels was groundbreaking in its brilliant combination of fiction and fact. Michael Shaara died in 1988, but his son Jeff has carried the torch forward, becoming a prolific author of historical fiction novels depicting some of the most violent episodes in America’s military history. The younger Shaara has now written novels set in the Civil War, the Mexican War, the American Revolution, the First World War, the Second World War, and most recently the Korean War. For Flag Day, I felt a look back at Shaara’s Revolutionary War series was most appropriate.

Rise to Rebellion follows several figures from the American Revolution, primarily Benjamin Franklin, John and Abigail Adams, and British General Thomas Gage. It begins to introduce George Washington, who (far and away) becomes the central figure and hero in Shaara’s follow-up The Glorious Cause. With Rise to Rebellion, the main protagonists are John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, two of the greatest statesmen in American history, and arguably world history. What’s interesting about Rise to Rebellion is that Shaara takes us into the politics behind the war and leading up to the war. This was new territory for him, as his previous books focused primarily on the wars themselves.

The book begins with the Boston Massacre and showcases John Adams’ principled defense of the British soldiers put on trial following that tragedy. It also shows how Ben Franklin tried valiantly to prevent war, only to see the situation in London unravel and the Mother Country go to war with its rebellious colonies. And it shows us Gage, a British general who tried to keep peace and order by preventing an ugly situation from spinning out of his control.

Shaara climbs into the heads of these historical figures, allowing them to step out from the dusty pages of the history books we studied in school and come alive. Does he use some creative license in doing so? Absolutely. Does he get all their thoughts exactly right? Probably not. But his painstaking research is obvious, and one gets the feeling that Shaara’s depiction of these famous (in some cases, legendary) historical figures isn’t far off the mark.

Rise to Rebellion is an inspiring book. It doesn’t contain as much military action as The Glorious Cause. Those looking for exciting battle scenes will probably be disappointed by the first half of Rise to Rebellion. But I found Shaara’s depiction of the politics and intrigue to be quite compelling. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would highly recommend it. And of course I likewise recommend The Glorious Cause.

Jannes Comes to America: My Review of James Byron Huggins’ Sorcerer

Michael Thorn and his wife have just moved to the outskirts of Salem, Massachusetts and want to settle into a quiet, semi-normal life. Thorn, a retired detective and former Special Forces operative, has seen enough violence to last several lifetimes. He now wants to focus on his marriage and his children. Unfortunately, the Thorn family’s new digs include the skeleton of one of the most evil sorcerers in history. When Thorn discovers the skeleton, he unintentionally frees the ancient evil to unleash havoc and horror on unsuspecting innocents in what had been a quiet New England hamlet. Such is the premise of James Byron Huggins’ supernatural thriller Sorcerer.

The sorcerer unleashed on the world by Thorn is none other than Jannes — the very sorcerer who faced Moses in ancient Egypt. Jannes is, of course, an actual figure from the Scriptures. That he winds up in North America thousands of years after his failed confrontation with Moses signals that we’re definitely reading fiction. It’s entertaining fiction, but definitely fiction as there is no evidence whatsoever that Jannes and his colleague Jambres ever left Egypt. Huggins goes further, imagining that Jannes was the real power behind Egypt’s throne. Pharaoh was but a puppet to Jannes’ evil scheming and palace intrigue. It is true that the Bible records Pharaoh’s magicians performing “enchantments” (see Exodus 7). If the Bible is true (and I believe it is), then the sorcerers who confronted Moses possessed supernatural powers. Huggins’ novel runs with that biblical claim.

Huggins’ protagonist, Michael Thorn, resembles those from Huggins’ other novels. Brave. Tough. Ex-military. Proficient with firearms. Huggins has lots of experience with this type of protagonist. Like Huggins’ other heroes, Thorn must face extreme odds in a fierce fight between good and evil. Thorn is aided by a devout priest, a wise professor, and a mysterious unit of Special Forces soldiers that report to the Vatican. Whether such a force actually exists, this non-Catholic cannot say. I have my doubts. But, again, Sorcerer is fiction.

As one who loves action-packed novels, I’ve long been a fan of Huggins’ work. While he can sometimes get bogged down in firearms minutiae, Huggins knows how to craft heroic protagonists, evil villains, and thrilling action sequences. If you at all appreciate Christian fantasy or science fiction, I encourage you to pick up Sorcerer.

A Ragtag Crew in an Aging Vessel Save the Galaxy in this Exciting Space Opera Adventure: My Review of Chris Fox’s Destroyer

A misfit crew on an aging warship must save humanity from destruction in this science fiction actioneer from Chris Fox. Released in March 2016, Destroyer is Fox’s debut space opera novel. It’s the first in his self-published Void Wraith Trilogy. What’s it like? Well, if you throw Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and Mass Effect into a blender, you’d get something along the lines of Fox’s Void Wraith series. Since I enjoy all those sci-fi franchises, I enjoyed Destroyer. I read the book in two days, and am looking forward to continuing with the series.

Chris Fox is an iPhone app developer and self-published author based in San Francisco, California. He’s written numerous books, both fiction and nonfiction. As a novelist, he’s written about spaceships, aliens, werewolves, zombies, and mech warriors. His nonfiction writing is all about helping other authors enjoy some of the same success he has experienced. So far, I’ve read 5,000 Words Per Hour, Write to Market, and Launch to Market. And I’ve watched several of his very helpful videos. What got me interested in Destroyer, in fact, was his video series on how he wrote Destroyer in 21 days. If any of you are interested in writing fiction (or perhaps working on some fiction projects), I encourage you to check out Chris’s helpful resources at http://www.chrisfoxwrites.com/for-writers/

Destroyer‘s main protagonist is Commander Nolan, the newly installed executive officer of the UFC Johnston, an aging destroyer-class vessel. For reasons that become clearer as the story progresses, Nolan lost his cushy job with the Office of Fleet Intelligence and was  exiled to the Johnston. It was an assignment he didn’t ask for, and few on the Johnston appreciate his being there – at least at the story’s outset. Nolan’s commanding officer is the legendary Captain Dryker, hero of the Tigris War, a war the humans lost to the savage feline race. In his sixties, Dryker is beginning to show his age and the rigors of service are catching up with him. Destroyer also features a handful of other characters, including a grizzly female Marine sergeant who chews up her scenes quite well.

The crew of the UFC Johnston are considered rejects and misfits by Fleet Command. Even their famous captain, skipped over for promotion to admiralty, is serving on board because no one back home wants much to do with him. The ship is old and technologically inferior to the vessels with which it interacts. And yet…it’s up to the Johnston to save the galaxy from a looming threat that no one seems to take seriously.

Destroyer has it all: spaceship battles, space marines, political intrigue, suspense, exotic species, and lots of destruction. There’s even a quote from General James “Mad Dog” Mattis thrown in. Fox keeps the story moving at a steady pace. And keeps the reader turning pages, wanting to see what happens next.

If you like space opera science fiction, give it a shot. I doubt you’ll regret it.

The Beginning of the End of Religious Freedom in America (for Christians)

It may be the beginning of the end for religious freedom in the United States of America, at least for evangelical, Bible-believing Christians. Doubt me? Well, earlier this week, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) grilled President Donald Trump’s nominee for the position of Deputy Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget during the latter’s Senate confirmation hearings. To be expected, of course, so long as the grilling was over Russell Vought’s political or economic views. But that’s not what happened. Instead, Senator Sanders came after Vought’s religious views. For a sitting U.S. Senator (as well as a popular presidential candidate in last year’s Democratic Party nomination contest) to publicly and brazenly question an executive department nominee’s theology as a condition for public service should give all Americans serious pause.

In early 2016, Mr. Vought’s alma mater, Wheaton College, was rocked by controversy when one of its professors said Christians and Muslims worship “the same God.” In an article for Resurgent magazine, Mr. Vought defended Wheaton College’s statement of faith, writing that Muslims have a “deficient theology” and “do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.” Now this is certainly offensive talk in our postmodernist age of political correctness. And I fully expect many of my readers (since this blog is aimed at a wide audience, including people who do not share my Christian faith) will be appalled at such a statement. Nevertheless, what Vought said is basic Christian doctrine.

In the third chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus tells Nicodemus (and all those who, for the last 2000 years, have read John): “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” (John 3:18). There’s also John 3:16, John 14:6, Romans 10:9-10 and 13, and numerous other passages — all of which say that Jesus Christ is central to salvation.

The Bible is certainly offensive to many people. That’s why many people have tried to destroy it (unsuccessfully) over the years, but the Bible (and Christianity) have been around for 2000 years. And for most of that 2000 years, Vought’s beliefs would not have been considered controversial or revolutionary. But even if you find Mr. Vought’s religious beliefs offensive, even if you find the Bible offensive…that’s not relevant here. What’s most distressing is that this line of questioning even came up at a U.S. Senate hearing!

The U.S. Constitution clearly states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” (Article VI, Section 3). That means it’s unconstitutional for a sitting U.S. Senator to consider an executive branch nominee’s religious beliefs when deciding whether to consent to that person’s nomination. For a senator to do otherwise shows (at best) ignorance of or (at worst) defiance of the Constitution of the United States.

Has Senator Sanders not read the Constitution? Who cares what Vought believes regarding heaven, hell, salvation, and the like? It doesn’t matter! The only vested interest the government has in someone’s religious beliefs are whether those beliefs will drive a person to commit violence (that’s actual violence, not the verbal hurt-your-feelings, micro-aggression nonsense so many college campuses are worried about) against their fellow citizens or call for some kind of insurrection against the government. That’s it. A person can believe (and express his belief) in God, Allah, or the atheists’ favorite “Flying Spaghetti Monster,” and it shouldn’t be a matter of consideration for the U.S. Senate.

Thus far, it’s mostly conservatives who are upset at Sanders’ line of questioning, and that’s why I see the writing on the wall for the future of religious freedom. Most of those on the left side of the political spectrum seem to find this line of questioning reasonable and appropriate. If that’s the case, it’s only a matter of time before evangelical, Bible-believing Christians are no longer welcome in the public square.

In this blog, I normally try to steer clear of political commentary. This issue deserves our attention, however. What Senator Sanders did by raising Mr. Vought’s religious views is unconstitutional, un-American, and frankly bigoted toward Christians. Are we going to respect that part of the Constitution or not? Clearly, Senator Sanders is not. And, for that reason, this American is glad he is not our President today.

Choosing Evil Over Good (And Having Fun Doing It): My Review of Travis Bagwell’s Awaken Online – Catharsis

What happens when anger, rage, and a desire for power all mix together? According to Travis Bagwell, you become an evil necromancer who unleashes a torrent of death and destruction in a digital world. That’s the premise of Awaken Online: Catharsis, one of the most absorbing and thought-provoking science fiction and fantasy novels I’ve read in a long time.

Awaken Online: Catharsis is another entree in the fast-growing, increasingly popular genre known as “LitRPG.” LitRPG stands for Literature Role-Playing Game, and it’s all about immersing the reader in a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game. In other words, it’s a virtual reality adventure with the protagonist having to progress through skill development, resource acquisition, quest achievement, the building of alliances, and so forth — as is the case with any typical role-playing game (RPG).

The science fiction and fantasy genre has long been known as an effective platform through which to explore moral and philosophical questions. J.R.R. Tolkein’s legendary Lord of The Rings series constitutes one of the most powerful examinations of greed and the lust for power ever written by having “the rings,” especially the “one ring to rule them all,” represent power – or, more accurately, the power to achieve power. The promise of the ring is that the one who wields it will tower in strength and might over everyone else, possessing the ability to vanquish any foe. Unfortunately, the ring possesses the wearer more than the wearer possesses the ring. The one who holds the ring is consumed by lust, desperation, and paranoia, ultimately becoming twisted and enslaved himself. In Tolkein’s Lord of The Rings, victory over evil ultimately means throwing the most powerful ring of all into the fires of Mount Doom from which it was forged. In other words, one achieves heroic victory not by claiming power, but by denying it.

Travis Bagwell is certainly not on the same literary scale as the late, great Tolkein (nor would he likely claim to be), but Bagwell nevertheless accomplishes something very Tolkeinesque with Awaken Online. Bagwell allows his protagonist, the bullied and victimized Jason, to channel his rage and anger into an immersive virtual world, a brand new MMO game called Awaken Online. Jason does this by becoming an “evil” necromancer warlord who “murders” NPCs (non-player characters), raises armies of zombies, unleashes waves of terror on his enemies, and even takes over a town! From Jason’s perspective, it’s all just a game, and it’s a harmless way to vent his anger and even get back at his nemesis, who is also a player in the game. But, for the reader, other questions are raised.

Is it wrong to play the bad guy (and enjoy playing the bad guy) in a game? Are crimes or atrocities committed in a virtual world “sin” in the eyes of God? For those of you who don’t share my Christian faith, this question of morality has to get even more problematic, because what possible objective standard could Jason, in a virtual world, be violating? Does it even make sense to use terms like “evil” or “sin”? (Note to my atheist/agnostic readers: I’m not suggesting atheists or agnostics are immoral. I’m referring only to morality in an intellectual sense). For those of you who do share my Christian faith, other questions probably arise such as whether Christians should even read or follow along with dark fantasy themes such as those explored in Awaken Online. (Side note: I’m sure Marcia Montenegro would not approve of Awaken Online – see my review of her book here). 

As if those questions weren’t enough, Bagwell raises the stakes even more. Set many years into the future, the MMO game featured in Awaken Online is governed by an Artificial Intelligence (AI) that becomes more sentient and unpredictable as the story unfolds. Jason believes he is acting within a relatively safe environment, but the realms of virtual reality and physical reality blend in ways that show Jason’s belief (at least to the reader) to be a false assumption.

As someone who almost always plays “the good guy” in a role-playing game or a MMO (that is, when I have the time – which, given the demands of my job, is tough), following along with a protagonist as he raced down the evil path was a bit awkward. And, yet, I must confess that it was fascinating. Bagwell is a phenomenal writer, and I couldn’t help but get swept up in the excitement of Jason’s exploits.

Nevertheless, the motivations that led Jason to choose the identity of an evil necromancer in the game are the same basic motives that drive many people to the dark side in real life. Anger and rage (particularly at what people see as injustice), along with a desire for revenge or a desire for power to no longer be a victim — these desires lead people to evil in the real world.

The desire for power, in particular, is something that Bagwell explores very effectively. Some people desire power simply for the sake of having power, but not Jason. For Jason, the world in which he inhabits – the one in real life – is full of injustice. Jason looks around his world and sees absentee and disinterested parents, corrupt school administrators, and a despicable bully who is charismatic and rich enough to get away with just about anything. Jason’s way to cope is to immerse himself into another world and to acquire enough power in that world that he can create his own reality. 

Bagwell also shows us a “good guy” character who is anything but. On the surface, Jason’s antagonist, Alex, is a polished, intelligent, and charismatic student (in real life) and a courageous warrior for justice (in the MMO world). But Alex (or Alexion as he is known in the virtual world of this story) is as broken and as sadistic as some of the most nefarious people in all of fiction (or, for that matter, in real life). This is a reminder that, when it comes to people, we can’t always go by what we see on the surface. There is often much more to people’s story than meets the eye.

Unlike other LitRPG novels, the main character isn’t overpowered. And he’s not a mighty warrior fighting on the front lines. Jason is instead a master strategist. He’s a thinker. And the reader can’t help but be impressed by how Jason figures out situations and cleverly rises to the top of his part of the world.

Awaken Online is a fantastic novel. It’s both gripping and provocative. If you’re at all a fan of fantasy or science fiction, I encourage you to pick up a copy. You won’t be disappointed.

Is The Paranormal Real? My Review of Marcia Montenegro’s Spellbound

Marcia Montenegro is a former astrologer and “New Age” practitioner. And she has a warning for parents: Beware the seductive power and dangers of the paranormal. In her 2006 book Spellbound: The Paranormal Seduction of Today’s Kids, Montenegro defines the paranormal as “efforts to access or use supernatural power or attempts to gain secret or hidden information outside the use of the natural senses.” These efforts or attempts, which can include astrology, divination, psychics, incantation, communication with the dead, and more, are “occult” type practices. To Montenegro, who has personal experience with the occult, these practices are to be avoided and not celebrated –not even in movies or literature.

Those of you who reject the reality of the supernatural will of course find Montenegro’s book (and probably this review) laughable. If the natural, material world is all that there is, then all religions or supernatural belief systems are nothing more than man-made fantasy. And if that is the case, it is ludicrous to raise objections to “the paranormal,” because no such thing exists. Stories, games, or movies about witches, wizards, zombies, and so forth are just harmless science fiction and fantasy fare. Therefore, if you don’t believe in God, I would encourage you to skip this article and instead watch philosopher William Lane Craig sketch out reasons why we should believe in God.

For those of you, however, who do believe in God, I hope you will read on. After all, if God is real, it obviously follows that there is a supernatural realm beyond our senses. And that realm is the subject of Montenegro’s Spellbound. It’s also a realm with which the author has personal experience.

Now the president of Christian Answers for the New Age (CANA), Montenegro warns that our society has embraced paranormal phenomena as “harmless,” “imaginary,” or (in some cases) “useful,” and that occult practices are now “more accessible and appealing to children and teens.” Indeed, our society is inundated with movies, television programs, books, games, and recreational activities which feature ghosts, witches, wizards, spells, demons, and gods. From Bewitched to I Dream of Jeannie and from Star Wars to Harry Potter and from World of Warcraft to Magic: The Gathering, we continue to be dazzled and entertained by representations (albeit, in virtually all cases, fictional) of sorcery and the occult. While most view these games, books, movies, and TV shows as harmless entertainment, Montenegro warns that they, at the very least, desensitize us to practices that are, in reality, troubling and even potentially dangerous. She points out that, in some cases, fictional portrayals of the paranormal have led children and teens (and some adults) to further explore actual witchcraft and the occult.

So what? One might ask. Why concern ourselves with the paranormal and the occult? What’s the harm of kids checking out books on Wicca after reading Harry Potter? Because, writes Montenegro: “I believe the mere engagement in such practices and the use of occult tools can and does engage the demonic, whether or not there is a belief or desire for supernatural contact.”

The Law of Moses expressly forbids dabbling in the paranormal. Here’s the relevant portion of Deuteronomy 8 (as translated in the KJV):

10 There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch.

11 Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer.

12 For all that do these things are an abomination unto the Lord: and because of these abominations the Lord thy God doth drive them out from before thee.

13 Thou shalt be perfect with the Lord thy God.

14 For these nations, which thou shalt possess, hearkened unto observers of times, and unto diviners: but as for thee, the Lord thy God hath not suffered thee so to do.

On the surface, this passage indicts many of the more popular characters in fiction. This includes sitcoms like Bewitched, movies like Star Wars, games like World of Warcraft, and novels penned by authors like Raymond Feist, Robert Jordan, and Brandon Sanderson. But is there a difference between reality and fiction? In other words, can a Christian read about sorcerers and zombies without violating Deuteronomy 8? As someone who grew up loving Star Wars, laughed while watching I Dream of Jeannie reruns, dabbled in MMOs like Star Wars: Galaxies and World of Warcraft, and has read numerous sci-fi and fantasy novels, I have to express my hope that the Bible’s denunciation of occult practices does not include fiction.

“Does reading books or watching television shows with occult or paranormal content have the same effect as participating in these activities?” asks Montenegro in her book. She gives this answer: “It probably doesn’t have the same effect, but it can add to the desensitization.” I agree with this answer, and it leads me to the Apostle Paul’s teachings on purchasing and eating meat that had been offered to idols.

In the first century A.D., it was common in the Greco-Roman world for meat sold in the marketplace to have been set aside as a sacrifice to false gods prior to its sale. Jewish converts to Christ would have nothing to do with this meat. They were steeped in the Law of Moses, including the Deuteronomy passage cited above. To them, no Christian should ever eat meat that had been offered to or dedicated to false gods. It was unthinkable. This became a source of contention when more Gentiles joined the church. They saw no problem with buying and eating such meat. To them, the gods to whom the meat was offered weren’t real. They were fictional. The meat, however, was real. And they needed meat to feed themselves and their families. So, as long as they weren’t directly participating in idol worship, they saw no problem with eating said meat. The debate became so contentious that the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) had to address the matter. And they sided with the Jewish concerns. They asked all Christians NOT to eat meat offered to idols.

But the Apostle Paul dissented. In his writings, he took a much more permissive and nuanced approach, and it’s instructive (at least in my opinion) for our purposes as well. We see Paul’s teachings on this subject in I Corinthians 8:

1 Now concerning things offered to idols: We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies.

2 And if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know.

3 But if anyone loves God, this one is known by Him.

4 Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one.

5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords),

6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live.

7 However, there is not in everyone that knowledge; for some, with consciousness of the idol, until now eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.

8 But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.

9 But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak.

10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols?

11 And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?

12 But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.

13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.

Now go back and re-read, only this time, replace the references to eating meat offered to idols with references to reading fiction or watching movies or TV programs with fantasy or paranormal elements. I believe that’s what Paul would say on this subject today. And that is…

It’s not necessarily wrong to read fantasy or paranormal fiction or watch movies and TV programs with fantasy or supernatural elements, but it IS wrong to pursue or practice the paranormal or the occult and/or to cause others to stumble into doing so. 

To put it in personal terms: If you read Star Wars and enjoy the Jedi with their paranormal abilities with “the Force,” and then move on with your life, that’s one thing. But if you allow your fascination with the Jedi in Star Wars to lead you into studying or practicing the occult or witchcraft, a line has definitely been crossed. What’s more, if your public celebration of Star Wars causes others (in your circle of influence) to explore the occult, you’ve likewise crossed into “Sin” territory. This is how, I believe, thoughtful Christians should approach the issue of fantasy movies, TV shows, and games.

It is important to note that Montenegro makes an important distinction between fantasy super powers and occult-based elements in fiction. There’s nothing in the Bible that forbids people from flight. Therefore, there aren’t any moral issues with kids imagining themselves flying through the air like Superman. There’s nothing wrong with Batman and the Batmobile or Captain America with his super strength. Those aren’t paranormal elements – at least not the kind addressed in the Bible. Harry Potter and his friends learning magic spells at Hogwarts, however, does fall into the category of things the Law of Moses forbids and what Spellbound addresses.

Yes, Harry Potter is fiction. Hogwarts is not real. Montenegro knows this. Her point is that fictional portrayals of occult practices either desensitizes us to things the Bible regards as sin OR encourages some people (including kids and teens) to learn more about and perhaps practice these things in real life.

Spellbound doesn’t limit itself, however, to the portrayals of the paranormal in literature and entertainment. Montenegro spends time talking about horoscopes, astrological charts, psychics, and more. And she is at her strongest, in my opinion, when warning readers to steer clear of such things. We are to rely on prayer and God’s guidance for making decisions — not horoscopes or palm readers!

Once again, those of you who reject the existence of God or who don’t believe in angels or demons will find this entire review and discussion ridiculous. It’s of course your choice as to whether you believe in God. But for those of us who do believe in God and who accept the reality of the supernatural realm, Montenegro raises some important questions that should be considered. Accordingly, I recommend you pick up a copy of Spellbound.

As for myself, I will continue to enjoy the science fiction and fantasy genre, while practicing discernment and laying out some personal boundaries in prayer. Indeed, I think Christians can actually bring a lot to this genre. Not only literary greats like Tolkein and C.S. Lewis, but also more recent pop fiction writers like James Somers and James Byron Huggins. And it’s my hope that I too will add to the genre with my own fiction projects. Stay tuned on that.

For now…it’s good advice that we should all be discerning about what we read and what we watch. And Marcia Montenegro adds much to that discussion.