Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Giver (graphic novel adaptation)

by Lois Lowry

adapted and illustrated by P. Craig Russell
2019 / 176 pages

My brother Jeff has done a great review of the book this is based on, so I'm not going to spend much time on the plot, and will instead focus on what makes this graphic novel different from the book

The story takes place maybe a hundred years in the future, and war has been eliminated by muting mankind's emotions and by eliminating the conflict that comes when we have to make choices. Not only are everyone's jobs chosen for them, so is their spouse, and even the kids they will raise. 12-year-old Jonas has been given a unique role, being trained by The Giver to know and understand the past, so he can use that knowledge to advise the community in times of crisis. But as he becomes the best-informed citizen in his community he discovers things that horrify him – choices are also being made for the citizens as to who will live and who will die.

The graphic novel version

Most graphic novel adaptations are much shorter than the source material they are based on, in part because all the descriptive passages in the book can become pictures instead, and also because the plot is usually simplified. But this one is every bit as long as the original, with every scene in the book included.

Jonas's discovery of color is a big theme in the novel. In the muted world in which they all live, citizens have lost the ability to see color, but as Jonas learns more about the past, he gains insight into the present and starts gaining the ability to see reds, and greens, and yellows. So first, adapter P. Craig Russell shares Jonas' muted world by depicting everything not simply in black and white (that would be a bit boring) but also with subtle splashes of blue. And as Jonas learns how to see more, we begin to see increasing flashes of vibrant color, to show his growing awareness of just how exciting and intriguing a place of discovery the world can be. It's fun to see in pictures this transition from dull to brilliant. In these sections, the comic might even be better than the book.

But pictures also present challenges. It can be hard to visually depict what's going on in someone's head. To make up for that Russell carries over a lot of the text from the book. But he can't use all of it, which is why in the original the characters are all a little deeper, a little more realized.

Cautions

And sometimes showing is more problematic than telling. In one scene in the book Jonas helps bathe the elderly. In the comic Russell uses just the right angles to ensure all we see are the knees down, or the shoulders and up.

Nudity of a sort comes up in one other scene, which is the book's most troubling, even without the visual element. [SPOILER ALERT] Jonas discovers that unwanted babies are killed via lethal injection, and even in muted pictures it's quite horrible. Russell is restrained, but the idea of murdering infants is so unpleasant that any pictures, even muted ones, just add to the horror. That said, the scene is not at all graphic. I'll also note that the baby is shown fully naked, with scant detail, but enough to tell that it is a boy.

Conclusion

This is every bit as good as the novel, though both have their different strengths. I'd recommend this to teachers as a slightly easier way for reluctant readers to access this book. But like the novel, and the film too, this comic needs to be discussed. Its teen audience needs to wrestle with the warnings given in this story – the danger of governmental control, the false compassion of euthanasia, the potential and peril of emotions – but they'll most likely need help. So this is a great conversation starter, but a guide will be needed.


Thursday, March 14, 2019

Do I Know God?

Finding Certainty in Life's Most Important Relationship
by Tullian Tchividjian
212 pages / 2007

Billy Graham is the only explicitly Arminian preacher I know of, and he wrote the Foreword to this book, but his grandson Tullian Tchividjian attended Reformed Theological Seminary. From that Reformed perspective, he deals with the issue that vexed many Puritans (another brilliant part of our Reformed heritage), as well as many Christians today - Do I Know God?

Tchividjian has a deep personal connection with the topic, as a returned prodigal, and as a minister who deals not only with people who lack assurance of their salvation, but with those who have a false assurance - hypocrites. He starts by exploring what he learned in his young adulthood - that knowing God means having a real relationship with Him. He describes the danger of various kinds of false assurance of salvation: merely praying the "sinner's prayer," making a "decision for Christ," being "religious," and being "spiritual." While all of these may demonstrate some level of understanding of God, none are sufficient to establish the certainty of a real relationship with Him. Neither is being a "good person" or claiming faith without responding in grateful obedient love.

Instead, Tchividjian stresses the importance of believing God's promises, particularly of fellowship with Him in Christ. That fellowship leads to both assurance of the truth of right doctrine about Him as found in His word and a joyful communion with Him. Both our belief in God's truth and our communion with Him then bear fruit in an obedience that makes "our calling and election sure." Obedience is not the ground of our salvation, but it is the fruit of it.

Tchividjian makes a useful distinction between our relationship with God, which is grounded in Christ, and our fellowship with God, which can be disrupted by sin. Either that sin, or God's care for us, can drive us straight through "the dark night of the soul" toward a deeper dependence on Him. Finally, Tchividjian urges us to hold on to our relationship and fellowship with God in Christ in the hope grounded in the knowledge from God's word that "the best is yet to come."

In addition to the insight revealed in the eleven chapters of the book, the study guide leads the reader through thoughtful, challenging questions and Scripture references that make the book ideal for either personal or group study.

Sadly, one strong caution: Tchividjian's own conduct has undermined the power of his insights. If he truly has a relationship with God, his fellowship with God must be very troubled, since he has been implicated in extramarital affairs in two of the churches he has pastored. While, clearly, all men sin, including sexual sin in our hearts, the leaders of God's people are called to a higher standard of purity.

If you, or someone you know, struggles with whether you truly know God, and you can separate the writings from the writer, you can get Do I Know God here and here in Canada.


Thursday, March 7, 2019

Why is dystopian fiction worth reading?


In dystopian fiction we get a glimpse at some sort of looming, foreboding future: maybe it's humans devolving into separate castes (H.G. Wells' Time Machine), mass infertility threatening the end of mankind (P.D. James's The Children of Men), a domineering government repressing all but the elite (Glenn Beck's Agenda 21), or maybe killer robots overrunning the planet (Terminator).

The word dystopia is coined from Ancient Greek and means simply "bad place." What makes this a genre worth considering is because the best dystopian fiction is prophetic in nature, warning us of the dangers of a particular ideology (or practice) by showing us the "bad place" we will end up at if we adopt it. Thus there are as many sorts of dystopian novels as there are ideologies.

But not all of the warnings given are…credible.

The Canadian "classic" novel and current Netflix hit The Handmaids Tale warns of a world in which the government uses the trappings of the Christian religion to sexually enslave women. That is so far from where we are, or could conceivably head, that the book isn’t useful – the author is completely wrong and there are no insights to gain from her. (That hasn't stopped the Left from embracing the novel, pretending that Trump's presidency is its very fulfillment.)

That lack of credible threat is a problem with many of the teen fiction dystopian series (The Maze Runner, Divergent, and The Hunger Games) that have appeared over the last decade. They might be entertaining, but they aren't prophetic. If we look hard enough we might be able to find something, like The Hunger Games and its warning against folks killing and getting killed for the entertainment of the masses. That has relevance in a world in which brutal MMA fights are now watched by millions (including ones in which women pummel women) and the NFL remains must-see TV even though it leaves most participants crippled in one way or another. But does that make The Hunger Games worth reading? No. Most teens aren’t likely to make that connection. More importantly, the books present a dilemma that's likely to confuse its teen audience – the "hero" seems like she will have to either murder others or be murdered herself. Mature Christian will understand that it is better to suffer evil than to commit it, but will younger readers?

So what books do warn of credible threats? The top two would have to be:
  • 1984 - Author George Orwell warns of the State using authoritarian power to so totally subjugate us that, if they insist, we'll say that 2+2 is 5. If the idea of the State reconditioning people to spout obvious lies sounds too extreme to be believable, just consider what's happening to people today who say there are only two genders, and there's no switching from one to the other, and you need one of each for marriage. Obvious truths, one and all, but if you say them – and we must – Big Brother will want to have words! And if it's like that now, how might things look in ten years time?
  • Brave New World - Aldous Huxley warns of the State enslaving us not by force but by pleasure. Pain is taken away via the drug soma leaving the population in a generally happy stupor. Some clear parallels can be made to our meek, sheep-like society. Our cradle-to-grave State care leaves us dependent on the government to run more and more of our lives and that's how we like it. And our smartphones, Netflix accounts, opioids, and Twitter feeds leave many citizens in a soma-like stupor – celebrity-aware but politically-illiterate. 
These two books cover both sides of how we’re being hit today – the carrot and the stick. As Neil Postman put it:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.
Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. 
As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that our fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.
The credible threat here isn't from one approach or the other, but from both together.

While both books have sexual content, in 1984 it is brief and boring. A great G-rated 1954 film-version does away with even that. This black and white film, or the book, could be shared with older teens with little worry. But Brave New World, with its focus on the enticements of pleasure, has more sexual content, and while it's still not explicit, it might be something that a hormone-riddled teen boy could struggle with. The rating site Common Sense Media (family-friendly, but not specifically Christian) suggests that 1984 is for 16 and up, and Brave New World would be for 14 and up, but I would reverse those and maybe even hold off Brave New World for college-age and up. (Interestingly, the kid's reviews on Common Sense Media also rates Brave New World as more problematic than 1984).

In the other books, and films, that fill out this genre, the most common threat is probably killer robots (2001: A Space Odyssey; Prey; Terminator; The Matrix; etc.). Technological advances mean there’s a legitimate reason for concern here, but it shouldn’t be our principal concern. We differ from the world in that we understand that we should not fear “them that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul” (Matt. 10:28). Our true battle is:
not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph. 6:12).
What Paul means here by “flesh and blood” is Man and all his deadly weapons…including killer robots. But if that’s not where the real battle is at, then where should we focus our attention? Our concern is the Devil and all the means he uses – including false ideologies and philosophies – to confuse our understanding of God, or pressure us to reject Him, or try to keep us from learning about Him.

With that in mind some credible threats worth considering include:
  • Lord of the Flies - William Godling warns us not to be naive about our sinful nature; Man, left to his own devices is no angel. 
  • The Giver - Lois Lowry warns again enforcing sameness in the name of equality (it is aimed at young readers, but adults can enjoy and be challenged by it too). There is a great graphic novel version (which probably takes just as long to read as the original).
  • Time Will Run Back Henry Hazlitt warns against Communism specifically, but socialism in general. This would be for older teens, not because of problematic content (this is far "safer" than Brave New World or 1984) but simply because of the depth and breadth of the ideas therein. This is my own favorite dystopian novel because I found it by far the most educational. 
  • Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury warns of censorship, though I wonder if the type of censorship he warns us about is far less likely than the creeping political correctness we actually face. There is content here too problematic for younger readers to handle. 
  • Winterflight – Joseph Bayly takes us to a not-so-distant future in which abortion for disabled children is mandatory, euthanasia is compulsory soon after 75, and Christians are so confused about Romans 13 they think God wants them to submit to even these demands (the Christian confusion in this book is almost too spot on to take).
  • Fatherless, Childless, Godless - James Dobson’s 3-book series warns against abortion’s results - a shrinking population. (One thing that bothers me about this series is how it occasionally takes God's name in vain. That happens in other books listed here too, but they aren't by Christian authors, and I expect more from Dr. Dobson.) 
This is a genre well worth exploring...with care and caution. It's like a big blank canvas that insightful writers can use to paint pictures of futures that they hope – by giving their early warning – may never come to be.