What Old Books and Rwandan Bishops Have in Common

The last couple weeks have been depressing. Of course, there’s the usual stuff: hectic job, crowded schedule, and the existential horror of finding a grey hair in your mustache scruff. The social mediasphere is as toxic as I’ve ever seen it. It’s getting to the point where each new development in the Kavanaugh quagmire makes me feel nauseous.

But this week, I’ve found comfort from two different sources: century-old books, and a Rwandan bishop. I think they’re comforting for the same reason. But before I explain, here’s a little bit about the two sources:

  • Old Books. This past week I’ve been revisiting a couple old books that I love. They aren’t profound. In fact, they’re pulpy and kind of silly. One is “The Woman in White” by Wilkie Collins, which was published in 1859. The other is Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “A Princess of Mars” from 1912. But what the books lack in substance they make up in other virtues–they’re both imaginative, atmospheric, and charged with adventure. And they both have wonderful narratorial voices. By wonderful, I mean different. There’s a unique kind of intimacy that comes from following the way a narrator guides a novel. You get access not only into their opinions, but also the assumptions and habits that were commonplace to them, but are alien to modern readers. While sometimes shocking, on the whole it’s charming.
  • Rwandan Bishops. One of my favorite things about my church is our connection with Rwanda. We were planted by the Anglican Church of Rwanda, and have kept close ties ever since. Folks from our church regularly head over to Rwanda on pilgrimage. And, on the rare occasions, the visa system permits Rwandan leaders to visit us. This past Sunday we hosted Bishop Samuel Mugisha Mugiraneza. His sermon was excellent–you can listen to it here. His insights into American culture were especially striking. Being a visitor and observer helped him identify uniquely American struggles we take for granted–a consuming desire to get ahead, a gnawing need to work, and monetizing all our time.

You probably guessed what these sources have in common, but I’ll explain anyway. They both got me out of my neurotic news bubble. Getting outside the bubble lets me see its limits, feel its edges, and put it in context. My problems aren’t the whole world. My country’s problems aren’t either. They’re just a tiny piece of a larger picture. Whether you’re hearing the Word of God from the other side of the world, or just spending some time in a pleasant Victorian page-turner, it helps to remember that.

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Photo by David Flores

CS Lewis Was Right About Dialogue

CS Lewis once quipped that, “The more ‘up to date’ the book is, the sooner it will be dated.” Novels with teenage characters are a great example of this principle. Writing dialogue for teen characters is hard. New words, phrases, and expressions shuffle in and out of their speech so fast that it’s impossible to get it right for long.

There are two approaches novelists can take in response. The first is trying to capture teen slang in as up-to-the-minute detail as possible. Tana French’s 2014 novel The Secret Place takes that approach.

The Secret Place is a detective novel with literary aspirations. It centers around a murder at an all-girls school outside Dublin. The girls’ speech is, to put it mildly, distinctive. Here are some actual lines of dialogue:

“Not even. I mean, maybe, but no? Like, they could’ve just made it up … They’re, ohmyGod, so weird . . . Well, they used to be OK, like ages ago. Now we’re just like, ‘Whatever,’ you know?”

“[S]he thought she was totes amazeballs because she’d caught someone who was in OMG college, but of course he dumped her the second he found out how old she actually was.”

“OhmyGod, here, have some more duh. They can say whatever they want.”

“[Y]ou actually do the blood-sisters thing? Because that would be so totes adorbs I could just die.”

“But, I mean, she just said it. Straight out. All the guys were like ‘OMG, ew! Way TMI!’ . . . See what I mean? They act like they can say anything they want. None of them have boyfriends–duh, surprise?”

French obviously worked hard to capture the precise language of Dublin teens in 2014. But the problems with her approach outweigh the accomplishment.

Using so much slang is a cheap way to make the dialogue feel “authentic” without digging deeper. The important thing about French’s teenage characters should be their desires, motivations, and values—not the fact that they say “totes adorbs.” French does have interesting things to say about teenage friendship. Or at least, she would if she didn’t distract readers with all the jargon.

Also, this dialogue has aged terribly. I’m a 31 year old nerd, and even I know that teens don’t say things like “totes amazeballs” anymore. A mere four years after publication, it’s already embarrassingly dated.

Meg Wolitzer’s 2013 novel The Interestings takes the opposite approach. Its opening scene is a conversation between a group of teens at an arts camp during the summer of 1974. I’m sure that teens in the 1970s had just as much slang as teens from any other period. But you’d never know it from the book.

For instance, one of the boys loves the phrase “diametrically opposed.” This isn’t a slang term, but it’s perfect for the character: a clever, precocious teen who wants his friends to think he’s profound. It’s the sort of thing I used to say as a teenager.

Perhaps the best dialogue, though, is from a character named Ethan. He’s the group’s most talented artist, and has been nervously explaining his cartoon creation to a girl he has a crush on. After a long description, he says:

“Oh, and did I say that the cartoon is funny? It’s a comedy. Or it’s supposed to be, anyway. You get the idea, I think. Or maybe you don’t . . . I don’t even know why I want to show it to you, but I do, and there it is . . . It just occurred to me in the teepee tonight that there was a slight possibility that you and I had something in common. You know, a sensibility. And that maybe you might like this. But I’m warning you that you might also really, really hate it. Anyway, be honest. Sort of.”

When I finished reading that passage, I thought about how perfectly Wolitzer captured what it was like to be a teenager. And she did it without a word of slang or up-to-date jargon.

The lesson for writers should be obvious. Focusing on the latest slang creates dialogue that feels dated the instant it’s published. But focusing on the timeless aspects of being a teenager creates dialogue that will remain authentic for decades to come. The best way to make it fresh is to stop worrying about making it up-to-date.

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“Speech Bubbles” by Philippe Parreno (1997)

Photo by Looking 4 Poetry

Do Evangelical Celebrities Really Have Worse Kids?

You may have noticed this post is a couple days late. That’s because my original post was *gasp* shrouded in CONTROVERSY.

Sort of.

My original post’s argument went like this: (1) a declaration that the children of evangelical celebrities are, on average, worse people than children of normal evangelicals; (2) a personal anecdote about a jerk evangelical celebrity kid who I went to high school with; and (3) speculation on why evangelical celebrity kids are worse people.

Before I post anything, though, I ask my wife to review it to make edits and stop me from saying anything stupid. And this time, Danielle’s “anything stupid” detector was blaring.

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I’ll Say It: Summer Is Better Than Fall

We are now in the final days of Summer, and the opening days of Fall. That means it’s time to re-ignite a debate as old as human civilization in temperate climates: whether Summer or Fall is better.

What started as fights between serfs and minstrels has now migrated to Facebook and Starbucks. It divides nations, communities, and even homes. Yes, it pains me to say my own wife is an avid Fall-ist.

I’m a Summer man. My reasons are so basic that they barely need explaining. Explaining why Summer is better than Fall is like explaining why civilization is better than savagery–it’s so obvious that it almost defies easy explanation.

But I’ll do my best to put the primal into words. Next time you see someone giggling about their sweaters and their pile of leaf corpses, please respond with the following:

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Twitter Cranks and Evangelical Identity

So I’ve been doing something new and exciting—for me anyway. I’ve started buying some Twitter ads for this blog (it’s going well, thanks for asking). As you can imagine, exposing my tweets to a large number of strangers has done some . . . interesting things to my mentions. Random rude people just come with the territory, but there’s one particular type of comment that I’ve been getting that has gotten my attention:

Lots of people think I’m a Trump supporter.

Obviously, the people making these comments have spent no time on my site. Even a quick glance will show a half dozen posts criticizing Trump.

Which means the comments were prompted solely by the tweet. And what does the tweet say? Absolutely nothing about Trump, or even politics. After thinking about it, I’ve concluded that people assume I’m a Trump supporter because my tweet was not explicitly anti-evangelical.

And that’s got me worried.

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Good News: Our Great-Grandchildren Won’t Care About Trump

I want to share a comforting thought. For this thought, I want to take you to to the year 2068.

I’m sitting on my front porch, scratching my wrinkled head with a finger from my robot body.1 Two of my grandchildren, Xenon and Zorpo, play in the surf2 with my new thylacine3 puppy.

I’m reading my antique iPhone 20 while another grandson, Nikolajokic,4 reads his high school textbook on his iLens.5

“This new dinosaur theme park is a bad idea–mark my words.” I mutter. “Life finds a way–not that young people today know anything about that.”

“Hey grandpa.” Nikolajokic cuts in. “We’re studying the early 21st century in my history class. Is that Don Trump guy for real?”

I get a far away look as a shudder surges through my circuits. “Donald Trump. Now that’s a name I haven’t heard in a long, long time.”

“How did a guy like him become president?” When Nikolajokic sees the gleam in my eye, he instantly regrets the question.

Over the next fifteen minutes, I tell him the whole story–how we all thought it was a joke at first, how he kept winning no matter what we did, and how most evangelicals eventually followed him. I then made some thoughtful remarks about how evangelicals learned from their mistake and tried to make amends to later generations, but Nikolajokic has stopped listening. As soon as I started talking about some ancient technology called “Twitter,” he secretly played a Seinfeld6 episode on his iLens.

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Conservatives Have Weasel Words, Too

A couple weeks ago, I argued that “toxic” was a weasel word that progressive Christians use too much. On my Facebook page,1 a reader2 pointed out that conservative Christians have their own weasel words. One in particular caught my attention: liberal. I think that’s spot-on. And yes, I have several specific points about why conservative Christians shouldn’t use it so much:

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Of Trojans and Turtles

I noticed something strange when I walked past Target’s toy aisle. It was dominated by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This is not a criticism. As someone whose boyhood was in the 80’s and 90’s, I loved the Turtles. I watched every show, practiced every ninja move, and collected every action figure. A giant bin of them is still in a corner of my parents’ basement.

But that was nearly thirty years ago, and the Turtles are still popular. I would never have picked the Turtles as something that could endure to new generations. After all, they are a group of humanoid turtles who use karate to fight an army of robots in the sewers of Manhattan. They love pizza and skateboards and shell-based puns. How is this so lasting?

One possible reason for their staying power is their use of classical themes. Beneath the cartoon silliness is a story that has been repeated since Ancient Greece. This is especially evident in the most important relationship in the series: Leonardo and Raphael.

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Let’s Quit with the “Toxic” Talk

There’s a term that gets thrown around a lot that drives me crazy, both for rational and irrational reasons. That term is “toxic.”

It seems especially popular with Christians on the Left1 for describing things they dislike on the Right. Traditional sexuality is toxic. The concept of hell is toxic. Complementarianism is toxic. Missions culture is toxic. Etc., etc., etc.

I don’t want to get into the substance of those controversies. In fact, I agree with some of those critiques. Instead, I’m just giving reasons why we should stop labelling any beliefs we don’t like as toxic.

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Why I Don’t Think Much About Atheism Anymore

So I’ve been on this YA kick because I’m researching a writing project.1 As such, I started on Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.2 The prologue did a great job of setting up an enticing premise. Then in the first chapter, the protagonist–a teenager from a dystopian future trailer park–gives his personal philosophical manifesto. For some reason.3

The speil was predictable new atheist talking points: how evolution is true, and how that somehow disproves the supernatural. How humanity is on its own and we should just deal with it. How all religion is just fairytales used to manipulate the non-enlightened.

At age twenty, this sort of thing would have sent me into a cocoon. I would have journaled my inner thoughts and doubts, constructed arguments and counter-arguments examining the issue from all sides, and stared in horror at the unblinking stars as I contemplated being alone in the universe.

But that didn’t happen this time. I shrugged it off and continued on. My main emotion was irritation that such a silly argument could have such widespread acceptance.4

Is it bad that Matt of 305 doesn’t spend as much time with this stuff as Matt of 20? Have I become intellectually lazy or stubborn? At the risk of being self-serving, I don’t think so. Here’s why:

Continue reading “Why I Don’t Think Much About Atheism Anymore”