The strangely Christian meta narrative of the Destiny games

Hold on to your hats, folks, I’m going all literary analysis on you today.

So I’ve been getting into the games Destiny and Destiny 2. These are multiplayer online shooters where you shoot aliens and collect loot. Pretty straightforward and pretty fun (and often, just downright pretty.)

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Destiny 2 concept art: Nessus

But the game also hints at a deeper backstory that it doesn’t explain super well, unless you’re willing to spend hours piecing together tidbits scattered throughout the games. So I’ve been watching lore videos on YouTube, where other people take all those tidbits and string them together into a cohesive story.

I’ve been increasingly delighted with the meta-narrative of Destiny.

Like most science fiction, the story operates from a humanist worldview: mankind can become gods if we just put aside our differences and work hard enough. But then the metaplot comes into play, and it’s decidedly not humanist. In fact, it swings decidedly Christian. I wonder if the writers at Bungie realize what they hath wrought and its significance.

The big picture story goes like this. There is this alien-machine god-thing called the Traveler that looks like a small white moon. It’s power is called Light. It shows up in our solar system, grants humans the Light, and terraforms the inner planets and the various moons of the gas giants. Humans go live on these planets. Humans also develop longer lives, better tech, etc, and go into a Golden Age.

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Destiny concept art

This doesn’t last, of course. There’s an evil force called the Darkness that chases the Traveler from place to place. Its weapons are four alien races that serve it, but all who crave the Light–or hate it. They stomp humanity, destroy their colonies, and ruin Earth.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The Traveler actually battles the Darkness one on one. The game is very vague about this point, and the lore videos have multiple theories about what exactly happened. Point is, the Traveler won, but it was wounded and stopped terraforming and things.

Instead, it sent out these tiny robots made of Light called Ghosts. Each Ghost resurrects a single person, basically a zombie (or revenant, since they have their soul) powered by Light. They became known as Guardians. If one of these guardians is killed, they can be resurrected so long as their Ghost is unharmed. If their Ghost dies, no more resurrections for them, it’s lights out.

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Destiny warlock by TDSpiral

See the metaphor going on, here? It’s super interesting. Almost a Holy Ghost thing.

Now, it’s not a perfect metaphor. In real life, the God is the source of all Light, and He was not only before the Darkness, he already defeated it. The Darkness itself has a name and a face. Once known as the Light Bearer, he has become the Enemy, and his sin was pride. “I will become like the Most High!”

Jesus battled the Darkness and overcame it, being wounded on our behalf. In Destiny terms, the Last City in the shadow of the Traveler might as well be built at the foot of the Cross, because the symbolism is so similar.

Now, it’s really too bad that Destiny clings to its humanist philosophy. In its lore, the Traveler gives Light without making any demands of humanity. No devotion to righteousness, no forsaking sin and Darkness. In real life, there are two sides, and we have to pick one. If that was the case in Destiny, then the battle between Light and Darkness would go beyond meta-narrative and become the personal struggle of every Guardian. The story of the Warlords–guardians who abused their power–would become even more vile.

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If such a choosing of sides was possible, then redemption would also be possible for the four alien races who serve the Darkness, however unwittingly. It would be possible for them to abandon Darkness and serve the Light, too, thus becoming very interesting allies.

But Destiny keeps things very Tao, with Light and Darkness equally matched and no ultimate victory is possible. Mankind doesn’t have to seek righteousness and abandon sin in order to receive power. (Which, the more you think about it, is so strange. Why aren’t Guardians forced to pick sides? There are in-game stories of Guardians who joined the Darkness, so maybe, in a way, that choice is still there, just buried out of sight.)

So, that’s Destiny’s meta-narrative, a lot of Christian ideas underlying a humanist story. And it’s funny, because if you make the game more humanist (the Light is ours because humanity is awesome), then the battle between Light and Darkness falls apart, with no real difference between them. If you make the game more Christian, with the Light actually having conditions and everyone being forced to pick sides, then the story becomes much more profound.

Maybe that’s one reason the story is intentionally left vague, scattered throughout the game in hints and tidbits. Breadcrumbs for those to see who can. I’m continually shocked at the Christian terminology these lore gamers use to describe these concepts.

I think it’s a good lesson for us Christian writers. Tell a good story and don’t be afraid to pull in delicious metaphor about the struggle between good and evil. It rings true for everyone.

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Destiny 2 concept art: shard of the Traveler

 

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When we jam non-fiction into our fiction

My post Shouting into the Void a few weeks ago got a bunch of interesting responses. I’ve been processing them ever since. To sum up:

I observed that in Christian fiction, God is silent. All the other monsters, gods, and mythical creatures talk, though, whether it’s Medusa, a dwarf, or Percy Jackson’s deity problems.

This actually flies in the face of the Bible itself, where God scoffs at the other gods, who are fake and made of stone and don’t talk.

But we’re writing fiction, right? If we want to have God or a talking lion or a couple of ravens that give prophetic dreams, we can write it. We’re writing FICTION.

Ah, but that’s where things get sticky. It’s all fiction until it’s non-fiction.

Let me explain.

Christians aren’t the only ones who launch into sermons in the middle of their books. Eoin Colfer waxes eloquent about the plight of the environment in Every. Single. Artemis Fowl book. Eventually you just start skimming when you see the rant coming. Heinlein spends the majority of a chapter in the Rolling Stones praising that worm in the mud that we all evolved from.

We’ve all encountered this. There’s nothing like reading along, enjoying a good story, when suddenly the author wallops you with their political views. Even if you happen to agree with them, it’s still annoying. If you don’t agree with them, sometimes you put that book down and move on to a different author.

The intrusion of non-fiction into the fictive dream is annoying and unnecessary. It’s the author saying, “My story’s not strong enough to show you the truth of my message, so I’m going to lecture you directly.”

Christians do this with God. As soon as He’s mentioned, we’ve stepped out of fiction into non-fiction. It’s not a story anymore–it’s apologetics. And often it’s poorly-written apologetics. If the author had stuck to fiction and used illustrations and different kinds of characters (even–GASP–gods) to prove their point, it would be a stronger story.

The sad thing is, usually they’re telling a redemption story. We LOVE redemption stories. Don’t we all wish that Loki would join Thor and fight for the good guys? As a kid, I wanted Catwoman to join Batman SO BADLY.

 

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Mother of Cats by Michael Matsumoto

 

The good vampire and the good werewolf fill our TV shows and movies. The story of a bad person or creature who changed their ways and now fight on the side of Good: we eat it up. We love redemption, whether it’s self-improvement or one person saving another from certain death.

But this is where Christians stumble. I’ve complained before about authors who mess up the Hero’s Journey formula. Instead of the hero going on his quest and becoming a man, the hero is enfeebled by having to be saved over and over by the Jesus figure. It’s poor storytelling. It’s apologetics intruding into the fiction.

So, while we have all the elements of grand myth, we spoil it with too much non-fiction.

The real reason that Christians don’t read fantasy

There’s been an ongoing discussion in the Christian speculative-fiction community about why nobody can sell books. This discussion has gone on for years. “Look at our awesome fantasy!” authors cry. “Look at our amazing science fiction! Why doesn’t anybody want to read it?”

The Christians don’t want to read it, and the non-Christians don’t want to read it. So a lot of head-scratching goes on in the community. “What are we doing wrong?”

Stephen Burnett over at SpeculativeFaith.com wrote an article about this. He postulated:
—–

Q. Why isn’t there more Christian fantasy?

Answer 1: There has been, but it failed.

I know many Christian editors and authors who did or do publish fantastical titles, e.g. supernatural/fantasy/sci-fi. And that effort went over like a dead drone. Not because the publishers were not willing. But because the readership did not respond.

Without exception, the Christian fantastical titles I enjoyed in the 90s and 2000s3 are now out of print at their original publishers. Some, such as Oxygen and the Firebird series, ended up being republished by Marcher Lord Press, now known as Enclave, which is now an imprint of Gilead Publishing.

Answer 2: There is, but you haven’t heard of it.

Some Christian authors who tried fantasy/sci-fi at larger publishers ended up jumping genres. Or they moved into indie or self-publishing. In some Christian circles, this means even less opportunity for the Ministry platforms a traditional publisher might afford.

Even apart from that, you likely haven’t heard of an author’s self- or indie-published works.

From here it appears that a new author must be able to  be a full-time author/marketer to work at making a living from being a full-time author/marketer. Catch-22?

3. There is, but readers aren’t there.

This question is not about the writers/publishers not giving the supply.

It’s about readers and what they demand.

That’s why I overtly push against the “why don’t Christian publishers and writers do X” line. Fact is: Christian publishers and writers have done X, and readers did not respond.

I’ve begun to wonder, among some of the “Christian fantasy” circles I know, whether some writers simply do not know of the many, many writers and publishers who have tried this, and are therefore led to conclude “Well, someone should try it,” e.g. reinventing the wheel.

After I wrote this material, an editor with a Christian publishing house commented:

It’s not that publishers haven’t tried to publish speculative fiction before, but the Christian readers didn’t respond to it. I actually have on my desk a fantasy trilogy that [my publisher] did in 2007; no one bought it and it’s out of print now.

And while Christian publishers definitely should be more willing to take risks, Christian readers (and Christian stores, even in the age of Amazon it’s actually amazing how much they influence what gets published) have often punished those who took risks. That’s why we’re stuck in a never-ending vortex of Amish Romance (and now coloring books).

So, Christians don’t want speculative fiction. I guess because speculation often looks a lot like heresy–and the church has dealt with that particular nastiness for centuries. But I noticed something different.

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Dusk by Sandara

While reading a homeschooling blog, I came across a blog for Christian homeschoolers who write books. These kids and young adults are voracious readers and writers. They consume Redwall, Narnia, the Warriors series, historical fiction (anything Little House on the Prairie), and fairytales. Lots of fairytales.

All these books have something in common: they are safe. Juvenile fiction has no sex, no swearing, and lots of adventure. Sound familiar? Why, yes–it’s all the same thing that adult Christian readers continue to read.

And thus it dawned on me: to successfully market to an audience, you have to know your audience. And the Christian readership wants children’s fiction. It’s why the church hasn’t moved past Narnia or Middle Earth (both written in the early part of the last century). Occasionally someone mentions Frank Peretti or Chuck Black. Very occasionally someone might bring up Andrew Peterson. But mostly kids are allowed to read mystery, talking animal adventure, and historical fiction. These kids then grow into adults who prefer to read the same things. They’re not interested in the darker, edgier fiction out there.

However, the Christian spec fic authors want to read and write adult books. They want sex, swearing and blood–all things that aren’t appropriate for kids books. Yet they also try to drag in the heavy-handed moralizing that is native to a lot of kids fiction. The result is a mishmash that doesn’t appeal to adult readers of speculative fiction (too heavy handed on the moralizing), and doesn’t appeal to the Christian camp (too dirty!). And let’s not even mention horror.

Mike Duran in this video blog suggests that we drop the Christian moniker and just write pure speculative fiction. That way we can hit the adult market that wants the adult content we so badly want to write. We do have to learn to convey complex ideas without moralizing, but isn’t that part of growing as a writer?

Why Christians shouldn’t write speculative fiction

I’ve come to the conclusion that Christians shouldn’t write speculative fiction at all. Especially not fantasy.

Pitchforks rattle in the distance, so let me explain.

I’ve been circulating around the Christian spec fic community for a couple of years now. Like any community, it has its sticking points that the community bickers over.

Magic or no magic?

If C. S. Lewis used Aslan to represent Jesus, I can use The Generic Christ Figure in MY book!

Angels? Nephilim? Demons? Aliens?

Wizards are BAD and EVIL

The Occult!!!!!!!!!111one

Bedscenes?

Swearing?

DRAGONS REPRESENT SATAN

If you have a pantheon in your books UR GOIN 2 HELL

Christians should only read things that edify our souls in Christ! Pagan authors are doubtful at best and dangerous at worst! TRUTH!

Now, go into a bookstore/library. Pick up a random fantasy novel and read the back cover. It will involve:

Dragons
Magic
Wizards/witches
Angels/demons
Other mythical creatures/monsters
All of the above

These things are standard genre tropes. It’s the same as walking into the mystery section. There you will find:

Murder
Crime
A sleuth
Guns
Violence
Interesting ways of hiding the body

Now, imagine if Christians were whining, “Reading books where people die is against my principles! I want to write murder mysteries with no murder, no weapons, and no sleuth!”

It begs the question, “Then why are you trying to write this genre at all?”

That is the question that continually mystifies me.

Random on Wednesday

I’m having kind of an ADD day, so here’s my random thoughts.

1. My oldest lost his first tooth today! I’m pondering whether to do the whole toothfairy thing. It does make losing a tooth into a fun tradition.

2. I only mess around with Wattpad every couple of weeks, but when I do, I get sucked down the rabbit hole. You know how people will spend a zillion hours on Pinterest? That’s me on Wattpad. I’ve recently gotten some very nice comments on this story I’m writing my guts out on (it’s a World of Warcraft worgen story I’m rewriting into the terribly-titled A Victorian Werewolf Love Story).

3. Wattpad has taught me the value of always being very, very nice. Online, we can’t watch people interact in real life–we only have constant chatter. So we read peoples’ chatter and keep tabs on the overall impression they make on us. It’s keeping their Regard Score. A consistently kind person winds up with an “I like them, they’re nice” score. A less nice person winds up with “Meh” or “they’re not very nice” to even “man, I’m unfriending you and your venom on Facebook!”

Like it or not, we’re always marketing ourselves if we use the internet for any length of time. People who start all their Facebook/other social media posts with “I hate, I hate, I hate” start to slide down my Regard Score.

4. I’m confused by Christians who shriek about how much they hate fantasy in their fantasy. They don’t want to read magic, they don’t want monsters, they don’t want wizards, they don’t want dragons. I can never figure out what they do want. Lord of the Rings, with its practically no magic? Oh yeah, Gandalf is allowed to make fireworks and the elves are allowed to put a time-stop bubble over Lothlorien, but NOTHING ELSE.

Oh yeah, talking lions are okay. And somehow they ignore the whole Lilith thing in Narnia, too.

And magic is okay as long as it’s BAD and the people using it are BAD.

5. This article on Speculative Faith. Christians shouldn’t write about demons? Just … wut.

Sorry, I got a little ranty there. I guess you can tell what I’ve talked about on social media this week. :-p

The problem with SHOULD

A few weeks ago, someone posted this remark on a writers’ forum.

I’d have things really flowing, then start second-guessing myself on matters of theology and morality. “Oh…That should actually work out this way, in order to demonstrate this principle.” “This should be set up this other way instead, to be more in keeping with God’s character according to His self-revelation” (in a fantasy world under our God, somewhat like Tolkien’s Iluvatar but less standoffish). “How in the world do I explain X without compromising some theological point?” “Where IS the Savior in my world’s history or hope, anyway? But I doooon’t waaaaant allegoryyyyy…!” And before I knew it, the writing was bogging down and the creativity drying up.

Photographer: Tom Woodward, via Wikimedia Commons
Photographer: Tom Woodward, via Wikimedia Commons

I read a lot of blogs and interviews, and Christians are the only writers who wear this particular straitjacket. And it shows in our books.

I recently finished a two-book story arc by a very sweet author. I love her to bits and her writing is beautiful.

But she’s constrained by SHOULD.

On her blog, at one point she mentioned that second book and how she ran up against a point where the hero had to get redeemed. And okay, there’s nothing wrong with that. I spotted the point halfway through the book.

The trouble was the straitjacket on the story afterward.

The hero never learned to stand on his own and become a hero. He went from weak and whiny to weak and whiny with the Jesus figure holding his hand. He was like a kid being herded around by his mom, and therefore was hard to respect as a character. (The Jesus figure: Our Heavenly Mother.)

You know the story of the Hobbit. There wasn’t much to Bilbo until Gandalf left, and Bilbo becomes the leader during the Mirkwood crawl. Without the stronger savior figure, Bilbo has to step up to the plate and become a hero.

If the Jesus figure sticks around, the hero has no reason to grow. Mummy’s taking care of him and there’s no reason to man up. I kept hoping the hero of the aforementioned book would get to stand on his own and the Jesus figure would stand back and let the hero breathe.

Nope.

The hero, being weak and unmanned, goes on to a pathetic, ignoble ending and leaves the girl in the lurch. I was terribly disappointed. There’s no more books, either. That story is done.

The hero winds up married to the Jesus figure, for all intents and purposes.

I know this is how our relationship with Jesus works in real life. But somehow it doesn’t work the same in fiction, particularly when the god is incarnate and fixated on saving one person. In real life, our relationship works through the Holy Spirit. It’s a quiet, inter-dimensional thing that the general public doesn’t see.

This Jesus straitjacket appears in other Christian fiction, too. I’ve written it, myself, and felt the life choked out of my fiction as theology rose up and took over. I gave up writing intentionally Christian stories to escape those constraints.

I don’t know what the answer is, except maybe to grow both as a writer and a believer.

Christians and werewolves

I’ve been chewing on the idea of a Christian Werewolf Romance. I’ve been able to parse the Werewolf Romance fine, but the Christian element is stumping me.

I got on Google and started looking for “a Christian perspective on werewolves”. There are loads of articles about Christians talking about vampires, Twilight, and why such things are bad and evil. There’s articles from non-Christians making fun of Christians for their views.

But I can’t find any Christians tackling the werewolf mythos head on. So I guess that leaves me.

First, werewolf mythos in general. These are some great quotes from The Book of Were-Wolves by S. Baring-Gould.

WHAT is Lycanthropy? The change of manor woman into the form of a wolf, either through
magical means, so as to enable him or her to gratify the taste for human flesh, or through judgment of the gods in punishment for some great offence.

And Herodotus:–” It seems that the Neuri are sorcerers, if one is to believe the Scythians and the Greeks established in Scythia; for each Neurian changes himself, once in the year, into the form of a wolf, and he continues in that form for several days, after which he resumes his former shape.”–( Lib. iv. c. 105.)

But the most remarkable story among the ancients is that related by Ovid in his “Metamorphoses,” of Lycaon, king of Arcadia, who , entertaining Jupiter one day , set before him a hash of human flesh, to prove his omniscience, whereupon the god transferred him into a wolf:

In vain he attempted to speak; from that very instant His jaws were bespluttered with foam, and only he thirsted For blood, as he raged amongst flocks and panted for slaughter. His vesture was changed into hair, his limbs became crooked; A wolf,–he retains yet large trace of his ancient expression, Hoary he is as afore, his countenance rabid, His eyes glitter savagely still, the picture of fury.

Pliny relates from Evanthes, that on the festival of Jupiter Lycæus, one of the family of Antæus was selected by lot, and conducted to the brink of the Arcadian lake. He then hung his clothes on a tree and plunged into the water, whereupon he was transformed into a wolf. Nine years after, if he had not tasted human flesh, he was at liberty to swim back and resume his former shape, which had in the meantime become aged, as though he had worn it for nine years.

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Curse of the Worgen, copyright Blizzard Entertainment

And it goes on. Only wicked people turned into were-wolves, and they always roamed around and ate people. Real lycanthropy is a mental illness where a person believes they’re an animal, and I imagine some of the stories come from that.

You know in the Gospels when Jesus casts the demons out of the dude who’d been living in the tombs, and the demons said their name was Legion? Yeah, I imagine that sort of thing contributed, too.

So, bad werewolves are typically the lycanthrope kind, the ones Hollywood uses. Big nasty monsters and all.

But what about the other kind? The Twilight wolves, the modern day ones formed by studies of real wolves living and hunting in a family unit and having a close-knit society?

Werewolf fans refer to these as “shifters”. It’s a person who can shapeshift into a wolf, but it’s not a monster. A lot of times they retain human memories and intelligence, too. This is closer to fairytales and fantasy, where people can turn into an animal of their choice.

There’s no black magic involved–it’s usually genetics, similar to the X-men, who get their powers at a certain age. In Twilight they were all Native Americans who had inherited the ability to change into spirit wolves, and the proximity of vampires was triggering their transformations. (Which is brilliant, if you ask me.)

Which gets us into shapeshifting, period. This shows up a lot in mythology and fairytales, and Wikipedia has an interesting take on it.

An important aspect of shape-shifting, thematically, is whether the transformation is voluntary. Circe transforms intruders to her island into swine, whereas Ged, in A Wizard of Earthsea, becomes a hawk to escape an evil wizard’s stronghold. When a form is taken on involuntarily, the thematic effect is one of confinement and restraint; the person is bound to the new form. In extreme cases, such as petrifaction, the character is entirely disabled.

Voluntary forms, on the other hand, are means of escape and liberation; even when the form is not undertaken to effect a literal escape, the abilities specific to the form, or the disguise afforded by it, allow the character to act in a manner previously impossible.

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From Afar, by Nambroth. Click for original image.

It goes on to talk about fairytales where people were turned into animals, like the prince who was turned into a bear in Snow White and Rose Red, or the seven brothers who were turned into swans. That’s always a Bad Thing, like an evil spell of some kind.

But a person who can turn themselves into animals is always a freedom issue. Think of Sirius Black in Harry Potter, who escaped prison. Or Animorphs, or any number of stories where being able to turn into something else is a good thing. (Remember the girl who turned into a guinea pig in Sky High?)

Now we’re getting away from the whole “is it Christian” thing and into the realm of imagination and storytelling. The Bible has all kinds of stories that aren’t particularly Christian, like the trees trying to elect a new leader, or Jesus’s parables. Because Jesus told stories about unscrupulous servants and unrighteous judges, does that make his stories bad?

Jesus was making a point.

So if we want to write stories about people who can turn into animals, and yet go to church and see their alternate form as a way to explore and enjoy creation, well, that’d be a fun read. We can make our point, too.

Christians are writing vampire and werewolf books, like Never Ceese, which started out self-published. Lycanthropes are always bad, but it’d be fun to see somebody tackle the shapeshifter idea, too.