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fiction

October 15, 2008

This is a short story I wrote a little over three years ago. It represents what may be the only time I’ve ever written fiction for this blog. While I’m quite sure I haven’t thought about this story since the day I posted it, that changed yesterday when it suddenly made its way into my brain. I re-read it and thought it would be fun to post it for you. It’s just a silly little parable with a rather obvious meaning. Enjoy!

*****

“Hey, Drew! What’s happening?” That’s Darryl talking. He’s the guy who does second-level technical support in the office. If his minions can’t get the job done, they call on him. He’s the big gun. But he’s known around the office primarily for being a hockey fan, and not just a guy who dabbles in the game either. This guy is hardcore. He has had season tickets for as long as he can remember, and those things aren’t cheap in Toronto. He spends thousands of dollars every year and goes to every home game. If the Leafs are on the road, he’s in his living room, watching the game. Sometimes he even travels to Buffalo or Ottawa to cheer on the team. Every year he buys a new team jersey. Not the imitations, mind you, but the genuine jersey endorsed by the team - the one with the draw strings and the little vents under the armpits. The ones that cost $350.

“Oh, hey man. Not much,” said Drew. Drew is in the sales team and has an office down the hall from Darryl.

“Doing anything exciting this weekend?”

“Not really. I was just going to hang around with the family. Maybe mow the lawn.”

“I’ve got an extra ticket to the game on Saturday. Do you want to go?”

Darryl is always giving away tickets to the game. Hockey is not nearly as enjoyable when a fan watches the game alone. And his wife had long since tired of going to the games with him.

“I don’t know. I’m not a big hockey fan.”

“Dude! These are eighty dollar tickets! People wait in line for hours for these things.”

Drew looked around the room. He looked everywhere but at Darryl. A bit sheepishly he replied, “Problem is, I don’t really understand the game. You know, it’s all good for you, but for me it’s kind of embarrassing sitting in a room with 20,000 people who all know what’s going on when I don’t have a clue.”

Drew had grown up in England and had just moved to Canada a few years earlier. Like all Brits he had a fascination with soccer (well, football, actually), and also enjoyed watching some rugby. He had never really caught on to cricket, though he had had to play it all the way through school.

Darryl lowered his voice a little bit. “This game will be perfect for you. There are so many people in the country that don’t understand the game anymore that the league has decided to make Saturday night games Inquirer Games.”

“What’s an Inquirer Game?”

“It’s a lot like the regular game, but it’s designed specifically for people who just aren’t comfortable stepping into an arena. Some people have had bad experiences with arenas in the past, and some just don’t understand what’s going on. So these games try to bridge that gap.”

“But I just wouldn’t enjoy it! I don’t know when to sit down, when to stand up, when to cheer, when to boo!”

“Drew! It’s an Inquirer Game! It doesn’t matter if you stand or sit. You can boo or cheer whenever you want. Heck, you can do the wave all on your own if you want.”

“Have you seen the rule book for hockey? It has to be 300 pages. At least! I’ll have no idea what’s going on!”

“You don’t need to know the rules to have a good time. Just go, be yourself and have fun. It’s going to be a great night!”

Drew sighed. He felt defeated. “Alright, I’ll go.”

*****

Saturday night rolled around and precisely two hours before game time, Darryl pulled up in front of Drew’s house. Drew was waiting anxiously inside the door. He gave his wife a quick kiss and walked out to the car.

“This is going to be great,” Darryl said. He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt.

“I thought you’d be wearing your jersey.”

“I usually do, but not for the Inquirer Games. They ask us not to in case they make other people feel like there is some kind of dress code. It can also offend out-of-towners if they’re cheering for the other team.”

As they drove Darryl chatted, rambling on about the Maple Leafs - his favorite players, the strength of the organization and the growth in the popularity of the sport. Drew nodded politely when appropriate and answered questions when required. But mostly he sat in silence.

Finally they pulled into a lot near the stadium that was prominently marked with a sign emblazoned with the word “Inquirers.”

“Lots of parking,” Drew remarked as he watched a man in a blue vest cleaning up bits of paper and trash from the ground. Other men in blue blazers were directing traffic.

“Yup. A stadium can’t survive if there isn’t lots of parking, can it?” said Darryl cheerfully.

They walked towards the arena. As they approached the door, another man in a blue vest smiled warmly a took a step towards them. Plastered to his vest was a printed sticker that read, “Hello My Name Is STAN.” “Hi! My name’s Stan. Is this your first time here?” He seemed genuinely friendly.

Darryl replied for both of them. “Not for me, but it is for him. I’m Darryl and this is Drew.”

“Welcome! Welcome! We’re glad to have you here today. Tonight we’re hoping that everyone will wear name tags. Is it okay if I make one for you?”

Darryl nodded. Stan walked over to a table that had stacks of stickers and a few Sharpies lying on it. He returned a moment later with stickers for each of them. After putting the stickers on their chests and handing them a few pieces of paper they shook hands with Stan and walked into the stadium.

“You know,” Darryl said. “They usually call this the ‘Air Canada Centre.’ But for Inquirer Games they prefer to call it an activity centre.”

A table laden with coffee and donuts stood inside the front door. “Grab something to eat. They know that some people don’t have time to eat before they get here, so they always have lots of donuts and coffee at these Inquirer Games.” Drew mumbled something he thought sounded polite. But by this time his eyes were wide. He looked around the activity centre, taking in the thousands of seats, quickly filling with other people, most of whom were wearing name tags.

“24E and 24F. Here we are!”

They sat down. Their seats were red and padded. Quite comfortable, especially in comparison to the hard benches that pass for seating in the stadium back in London. Drew took the opportunity to look through the papers Stan had given him.

“What’s with the suggestion card?,” he asked Darryl.

“If you think of some things that would make the game better, jot them down and turn the card in at the end of the game. They’re always looking to make the game better.”

“But I don’t know anything about the game. I don’t even like the game!”

“But that’s what makes your input valuable. Just tell them what would make you like the game.”

Drew shook his head.

“Is that a band down there?” he asked, pointing to a group of guys hastily arranging their instruments just beyond the glass on the far side of the activity centre.

“Yup. They’re called The Forwards. They play during the Inquirer Games. There’s still an organ that plays during other games, but they know that it’s an old-school instrument and people don’t really relate to it anymore. So they brought in a band. These guys rock!”

A few minutes later the band began to play, “Take Me Out To The BallGame,” substituting a few words here and there to make it appropriate to hockey. The words flashed up on the video screens overhead and a few people joined in the music. Most just talked amongst themselves, biding their time. A few minutes later they launched into a rocking version of “The Good Old Hockey Game.” They bypassed the verses and chose instead to simply repeat the chorus.

Oh! The good old hockey game,
Is the best game you can name;
And the best game you can name,
Is the good old Hockey game!

Five minutes after the game was supposed to have started the announcer sounded over the loudspeakers. Drew glanced to Darryl and whispered, “Aren’t they going to sing the national anthem?”

Darryl smiled. “No, some people don’t like it. Especially Americans. So they don’t sing it at these games. I mean, come on! Nobody ever sings the anthem anymore excepting at sporting events, so they leave it out.”

The announcer spoke up. “Ladies and gentlemen. We’d like to welcome you to tonight’s game featuring the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Ottawa Senators.”

Drew quickly tuned him out. Or he did until the announcer began to introduce people.

“Tonight’s facilitator for the Toronto Maple Leafs is Roooonnnnnn Wilson!”

“What’s a facilitator?”

“They used to call them coaches, but people associate that with hierarchy. So at these games, instead of telling the players what to do, they facilitate a game plan where all of the players contribute. Quinn’s job tonight is to help all of the players understand how they can be better players and better people.”

Players began to file onto the ice.

“Hey Darryl, why aren’t they wearing uniforms?”

“It’s an Inquirer Game. If they wore uniforms they wouldn’t fit in, would they?”

“So how do we tell them apart? They’re all wearing jeans and t-shirts.”

“That’s the point, man. We’re here for them as much as they’re here for us. We don’t need to be able to tell them apart.”

“Aren’t there usually lines on the ice? A red one and two blues?”

“You’d see them if you came back next week, but they take them off for these games. They confuse people too much.”

“Gotcha!”

The game began with a bang. The Leafs won the faceoff and their forwards sped down the ice. It was then that Drew noticed the net was undefended. “What happened to the tender?”

“You call him a goalie in hockey. We don’t need ‘em. This is a celebration! No goalies means more goals and that means more celebrating!” Darryl stood up and did a spontaneous, solo wave. No one seemed to disapprove.

The puck found its way into the opposing team’s net and the crowd went wild. The band struck up a rousing chorus repeating the words, “Go Leafs Go” just a few times too many.

The referee waved his semaphore (whistles being far too obnoxious, outdated and difficult to understand) and the action began again.

Drew was beginning to enjoy himself. This wasn’t so bad, was it? No one cared if he knew the game or not. No one cared if he didn’t know when to cheer or boo or even if he despise the game itself. They were just glad that he was here to celebrate with them.

Two hours later the game wrapped up with the home team winning 86 to 73. Drew’s face was positively glowing. His eyes were bright and his hands were red from clapping.

“So did you have a good time,” asked Darryl as he headed towards the parking lot, his voice hoarse from shouting and cheering.

“I did! It was great.”

For a moment Drew looked pensive. A little quieter he said, “But it wasn’t really hockey was it? I mean…I still don’t know anything about the game.”

Darryl smirked. “Not if you mean hockey the way your grandpa played it. And not if you mean hockey the way the rule book tells you to play it. But you had a good time, right?”

“Yeah, it was great!”

“Then that’s what matters, right? You had a good time.”

“I guess so. Do you have an extra ticket for next Saturday?”

August 06, 2008

Almost eight months after my review of The Shack I continue to get daily emails about it. This is proof, I suppose, of the book’s continued success. I do not know if the novel’s popularity has peaked yet but can see that it is still at the top of its category on many of the bestseller lists. The emails I receive typically fit into one of two categories: the “thanks for the review” category or the “how dare you?” category. Today I want to address just two of the more common critiques of my critique of the book.

Here is how one reader expressed herself: “Hello Tim. I read your review after I had already read The Shack and I think your review is ridiculous. Your review reminds me of exactly why ‘stodgy old religion’ is so unappealing to masses of people.William Young wrote a novel - a story that inspired me and thousands of others to want to have a closer, more intimate relationship with God. All your theological arguments can’t erase that.” Another concerned reader told me of a professor in a conservative seminary who was untroubled by much of the book’s poor theology. “I was surprised that he seemed not as concerned due to the fact that it is a novel and so some leeway should be allowed for ‘poetic license.’ He acknowledged my concerns and said he shared them as well but said the novel did not ‘intend to do theology.’” I have received these comments, or ones like them, time and time again.

There are two broad arguments used here.

The first is pure pragmatism, implying that the book should be judged not on theological arguments, not on the basis of comparing it to Scripture, but on the basis of how people have reacted to it. Because so many people are responding positively to this book in opposition to “stodgy old religion,” we must believe that it is good. “William Young wrote a novel - a story that inspired me and thousands of others to want to have a closer, more intimate relationship with God. All your theological arguments can’t erase that.” The danger of such an argument is that it effectively places us over the Bible and over God. No longer do we judge right and wrong by what God says, but we judge right and wrong by how we feel. If the book inspires people to be intimate with God, we must judge it to be good. If it stirs emotions we like, we judge it to be good.

There are profound implications here. Pragmatism necessarily causes us to lose our focus on the absolute standard God has given us in His Word to determine right from wrong. When we lose that focus the church is placed on the slippery slope to becoming like the world. When we discard God’s standards we must depend on our own deeply flawed standards. We begin to trust in ourselves and lose our trust in God. We lose our reliance on His Word as the tool for discernment.

The second argument is that The Shack is not a work of theology and, therefore, must not be treated as such. An article at Christianity Today makes this argument. “It’s tricky to speak definitively of The Shack’s theology. Young could have written a theological treatise, a spiritual memoir, or even a long poem. Instead, he wrote what he calls a “parable” (not an allegory). That should give readers pause about confidently reading off a systematic theology from the book.” And in their review of the book they say, “Readers are talking about The Shack for its theology and its storyline, not for its faulty mechanics. Reviewers have criticized the book for hinting at universalism, as well as for feminism and a lack of hierarchy in the Trinity. Rather than slicing and dicing the novel, looking for proof of theological missteps, a better approach might be to look at significant passages as springboards for deeper discussion. The Shack is a novel, after all, not a systematic theology.”

This is a convenient argument but one we need to guard against. It creates a false, unrealistic division between works that are theological and works that are not. Surely we will admit that there are works that call for great theological precision (such as a Systematic Theology) and works that call for a more general precision, but we cannot neatly divide areas that require correct theology and areas that do not. The Shack is, by the author’s own admission, a work that seeks to change the reader’s perception of God. It is deeply theological! Read the reviews of this book and you will find readers saying how much this book impacted their understanding of God’s person and nature.

Tom Neven, writing for Boundless Line, covers this well in an article titled “But It’s Only Fiction.”

If you’re going to ground your fiction in the real world, then it must conform to the rules of the real world we live in. No unicorns or magic squirrels allowed. Even one of my favorite literary genres, Magical Realism, adheres to certain basic rules.

So if you’re going to have God as a character in your real-world fiction, then you must deal with God as he has revealed himself in Scripture. By using the Trinity as characters in this story set in the real world, The Shack author William P. Young is clearly indicating that he’s supposedly talking about the God of Christianity. But God has said certain things about himself in Scripture, and much of what Young does in this novel contradicts that. I don’t care if he’s trying to make God more “accessible.” He’s violated the rules of fiction.

More important, why does Young feel the need to change the character of God in this story? In a way, he’s saying that the God who reveals himself to us in the Bible is insufficient. Young needs to “improve” the image to make it more palatable. But as I said in the original post, God never changes himself so that we can understand Him better. He changes us so that we can see Him as he truly is. If God changed his nature, He would cease to be God.

The Shack is theological fiction. If it talks about God, it must be so! While it may not require the kind of precision we would expect from a work of formal theology, we cannot deny that the author seeks to teach what he believes to be true about God. And we cannot then deny that it teaches theology that is, in a word, false. It is not an issue of precision but of right and wrong! Fiction is a powerful medium for communicating truth and the evidence of this is in every positive review of the book; the evidence is in the fact that Jesus Himself often communicated using fiction.

The reader who complained about “stodgy old religion” exhorted me to “try to re-read the Shack with a more open mind.” But from her email and the others like it, I can see that in this case an open mind would require a closed Bible. We cannot set aside Scripture even when we read fiction. There is no such thing as only fiction.

January 19, 2008

I have no memory of reading (or having read to me) C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia (though I’ve been assured that my parents did read them to me at least once). On the other hand, I remember reading Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit many times. I read Tolkien for the joy of reading his stories. I love the world he created and I love the epic scope of the adventures. But for some reason Narnia has never appealed to me in the same way. Over the past months I’ve been reading the Chronicles with my children and have been experiencing them for the first time. I’ve enjoyed them and have enjoyed drawing comparisons and contrasts with The Lord of the Rings.

It may be unfair to compare the two series but really comparisons are inevitable. After all, the books were written by close friends and were written near the same time. The authors often compared notes and there are quite a few shared elements between them. After recently completing Prince Caspian, and in anticipation of the forthcoming film, I have been reading Devin Brown’s new book Inside Prince Caspian. I previously read Inside Narnia and found that it greatly enhanced my enjoyment of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Brown is a C.S. Lewis enthusiast (or scholar, perhaps) and uses these books to provide literary analysis of the Chronicles. He often refers to Tolkien and I found this short passage helpful as I’ve considered why I prefer Middle-earth to Narnia.

Tolkien more frequently not only gives the impression of depth but also provides actual depth. For example, if Tolkien had placed a Stone Table with letters in Middle-earth, he might very well have included a rendition of the letters themselves, a history of the language they were written in, and not only the names of the people who had originally carved them but also the names of their parents and grandparents. When we come to an open door on the backdrop of Tolkien’s stage, he will often open it for us. In contrast, as Doris Myers rightly asserts, the doors in Narnia typically “do not open unless the story requires that someone go through them.”

This observation about Lewis’s technique of suggesting more than is stated and not answering every question extends beyond historic details. Thus, as Myers points out, with Lewis there is no point in asking questions like, “Since there were no other humans, who ruled Narnia after the Pevensies returned to our world?” or “Since Caspian the First gained Narnia through conquest and unjustly destroyed Nature, under what law is Prince Caspian the rightful king?” Myers’s answer to closed doors like these is that Lewis’s stories are “sufficiently powerful” so that we do not question or perhaps even notice any lack of of more adequate explanations.

And I think this explains why I prefer Middle-earth. Middle-earth, as a world, and The Lord of the Rings as a story, are far more developed than Narnia and The Chronicles. I haven’t ever bothered to read Tolkien’s long, dense and boring histories of his world, evolutions of the language, and so on. But his attention to the smallest detail of his world is obvious through his stories. But with Lewis there are many unanswered questions and many doors that seem to lead nowhere. The world does not seem to have the internal consistency of Tolkien’s. The stories are good, but the world is not so immersive.

Yet I think the simplicity of Lewis’s world may be part of its appeal to some people, and to younger people in particular. Never are there long, dry explanations of fictitious history. Lewis tends to stay closer to the narrative without having to dedicate so much time to the back story. Also, Lewis provides interesting moral lessons and life lessons that are easier to find and more naturally read out of the story than what is found in Tolkien. These lessons are easily found and easily applicable, even to young readers.

But still I prefer Middle-earth. It has been good to read The Chronicles but even while I do so, I look forward to eventually reading through The Lord of the Rings with the family. It will be a long haul, but it is a challenge I am eager to take on.

Which of the worlds or the stories do you prefer (and why)?