How Reading C. S. Lewis Changed My Mind About Hell

FrankcoronationI’ve been thinking about the dangerous group I was once a part of and trying to understand how so many innocent Christian people could be tricked into following a predator.

And the truth is, we were pre-disposed to trust him because of the spiritual culture we were raised in.

Growing up, I was taught to make a clear distinction between people of the world and other believers. A Christian was someone who believed in Jesus, prayed, read his Bible, didn’t drink or smoke or sleep around. It was easy to tell when you met a true believer. You could *trust* those people.

But you couldn’t trust unbelievers. They were all depraved and damned and on their way to hell.

And of course, I thought this was all scriptural. Because once I got an idea in my head, I could find it throughout the Bible.

*          *          *

But everything began to change for me when I read the Chronicles of Narnia. In The Last Battle, a character who had served the evil god Tash his entire life is welcomed by Aslan into the new Narnia. To his own surprise, he realizes that he had really been pursuing Aslan this whole time, although he didn’t know it.

“If any man do a cruelty in my name,” says the Great Lion, “then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted.” And, “Beloved, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”

And it makes me wonder. Because the Bible doesn’t actually have a lot to say about people being saved on the basis of their “profession of faith.”

But it has an awful lot to say about how we treat the poor, showing mercy to others, forgiving our enemies, resisting injustice, standing up for the abused and oppressed.

Jesus says that the ones who do these things are the true sons and daughters of his father.

But in our churches, we don’t evaluate people based on the quality of their love. We evaluate them based on whether they conform to our idea of what a Christian should look like. Do they have all the “correct” beliefs? Do they listen to Christian radio? In short, do they look like us?

And the sad truth is that this way of evaluating people makes the church painfully vulnerable to predators and abusers like Tyler who can so easily adopt the language and rhythms of the Evangelical culture. Anyone who speaks against them becomes an “outsider” and carries a taint of distrust.

We should never allow tribalism to replace our moral judgment. There are *bad* people who profess the name of Jesus and *good* people who don’t. Rather than judging everyone based on the group they belong to, get to know them. There are atheists who are nearer to the kingdom of God than many Christians because what they’ve really rejected is a false Jesus. There are undoubtedly thousands of zealous, radical, “Bible-believing” Christians who are creating a hell for themselves by the god they worship, a proud god, a god who despises learning and beauty and exalts violence and hatred.

On the day we stand at the judgment, there will be some surprises. I suppose where we all end up is measured by what we loved truly, even if we didn’t know its name.


The Secret of Good Fantasy is to Write Honestly

ainePhoto Credit: Aine McVey

One of my goals for this year is to journal every day, which means I’ll probably be doing a lot more free-writing.

            I spent most of my Christmas break rewriting the first chapter of my book, just because I wanted to have a truly stunning first chapter. I finished it yesterday and sent it to three different people, seeking their opinions. It may need some revisions, but for the most part I actually really like it.

Some strange things happened as I was writing it. A few paragraphs into the chapter I realized that the only way forward was to talk about the fantasy stories I was dreaming up at around the time the novel begins. (Because the two main characters in these fantasies were fictional versions of me and *Rebecca, the fantasizing provides a commentary on the very real situations I’m describing).

Previously I had always been afraid to bring my imagination into the story because I felt it would alienate readers. (And also, I think, because *Timothy and Rebecca tried to tell me that my fantasies were evil and anti-social. Only in the last year have I begun rejecting the shame they spoke over me and embracing my calling as a storyteller).

What I found, though, was that being open about how much I used to fantasize actually made the story more realistic and grounded. Because the narrator is constantly explaining how he expects things to play out, watching them unfold in a much less dramatic way than he was anticipating creates a sense of realism. For example, there’s one moment in the first chapter where Rebecca has just finished giving a long speech about how reality is not a book, and I want so much to shake her hand and thank her for saying that, but I don’t. Instead, she goes into her room and shuts the door.

In earlier drafts of the novel, I would have been tempted to try and turn that into a big scene. But somehow, because it’s NOT a big scene (no matter how much I, the narrator, want it to be), it has more of an impact.

What surprised me even more is that, as the chapter was winding down, I found myself becoming obsessed with the most boring, minute, mundane aspects of the story. Reading back over it, my favorite moments are the dozens of small and apparently insignificant details, like the way Rebecca walks through the Cove with her hands in her back pockets, or how I say, “Hey,” and she doesn’t immediately respond, or how when we finish praying together I’m suddenly depressed because I’m afraid she’s going to admire me when all I wanted to do was to help her.

And yet the two BIG paragraphs that at first I was most excited about, the most poetic and “important” paragraphs in the chapter, fill me with an unsuppressed nausea. They don’t feel “real” to me in the way the smaller passages do.

And perhaps it’s just emblematic of a bigger change going on in my life. Because I grew up on Peter Jackson’s brilliant, amazing Lord of the Rings films, because those were my reality, I thought life would be full of grand gestures and vivid, emotional flourishes. I tried to shape reality to fit my preconceptions.

But over the last few months I’ve started to realize that reality is what it is, that there IS a real battle between good and evil but it takes place at the level of our mundane interactions. People have to eat and shower and do laundry and comb their hair and get their oil changed, pack their lunch in the morning and go to work each day. And for the most part we stand around looking bored and clueless, and there’s a lot of dead air in our conversations, and we accidentally talk over each other, and sometimes we don’t say what we mean to say and have to repeat ourselves, and we all spend twelve hours a day on Facebook and Twitter, and sometimes terrible things happen to people who didn’t deserve it, and that’s how life is, even if it’s not how it should be. But somehow God is gracious and we get to be heroes anyway.

And maybe in real life, being a hero is better than how it is in the movies, better and worse, because instead of battling sorcerers and Balrogs you have to fight REAL monsters, and that takes even more courage. I think I could stand up to a dragon; but after what I’ve been through in the last four or five years, no mythical creature will ever be quite as scary again. I’ve seen the face of true evil, and I think that smile will haunt my nightmares for a long time to come.

And I’m not giving up my love for fantasy, but as I get older the stories that continue to enchant me are the true ones: either those, like the novels of Tolkien, that radiate elemental truths about the nature of reality, or those like Harry Potter that take into account how people actually talk and think and feel and behave, so that I feel like I’m reading a real story about real people. Lousy case-of-the-week dramas, cheap end-times thrillers, and overblown Hollywood epics no longer interest me because they seem to be operating on an exaggerated and romantic notion of how the world should be rather than how the world is, and when I’m watching a movie the last thing I want to feel is concern for the writers, wondering whether they’ve ever had a real experience, whether they know anything about what life is like.

In the first chapter of my book I describe how Rebecca implored me to come out of my books and really experience reality instead of just reading about it. She taught me so much about how to live life, how to feel feelings, how to interact with real people. And to the extent that I didn’t figure out how to do that while she was living, I had to learn it in the aftermath of her death when every remaining illusion I had was shattered and I had to face the bitterness of mortality. She seemed to be fading into a fantasy more and more during our last years together, but because of her encouragement and example I was able to find my way back to reality. And I think I’ve “inherited” some of the pragmatism and realism she was always trying to pour into me (without a lot of success). That’s how I intend to live my life now. And when I finally sit down and write my fantasy novels, they’ll be weird and creative and surprising, of course, because I don’t think I can help being weird, but I want them to be true more than anything else, alive with the complexity and brokenness of ordinary life. And I think now they will be.

Celtic Myths, Part 2: Isle of Man, Isle of Delights

250px-The_Isle_of_Man.svg   I knew some of my favorite Celtic fairy tales came from the Isle of Man, but I didn’t know where the Isle of Man was. Apparently Ellan Vannin is a small island located in the Irish Sea between the islands of Great Britain and Ireland.

The Ben-Varrey (The Mermaid)

When a distinctive Manx literature began to emerge in around the sixteenth century AD, scholars noted its similarities to the mythology of Ireland. The legendary exploits of Finn Mac Cumhaill (“Fin McCool”) and Ossian, the great Irish heroes, were told and retold here.

“The Ben-Varrey” is a Manx version of a tale which also appears in the Western Isles of Scotland and in Ireland and Brittany. Celtic storytellers are especially fond of this story because it evokes the enchanted menace of the rocky and tempestuous Manx coastline where so many have perished. Continue reading

A Menagerie of Magical Creatures (Part 2)

[ This week I’ve been sharing some of my favorite fantastic beasts from the Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures. You can go here to see the first half of the alphabet. ]


          The dragon of death in the Voluspa, the Niddoghr drinks blood and eats the flesh of corpses. After Ragnorok at the ending of the world it will live in Nidavellir. It gnaws endlessly upon the roots of the world tree Yggdrasil. In later Christian times Nidhoggr was not forsaken, becoming the dragon who tormented the dead in the bowels of hell at the spring of Hvergelmir.


woodblock2 O Goncho

          A gigantic white winged dragon from the traditions of Japan. The O Goncho inhabited a particular stretch of water near Yamahiro. Every fifty years it transformed into a golden bird with a cry resembling the howl of a wolf.


The Oats Goat

          The name of the spirit of growing oats. Children are warned to stay away from him. Sometimes there are two goats, a man and a woman.


          In George Macdonald’s novel Phantastes, the ogre refers to a sinister, pointy-toothed woman who tricks the hero into looking into a certain cupboard by telling him not to.



          Also known as the Mongolian Death Worm, the Olgoi-Khorkal is said to live in the Gobi Desert, where it grows up to four feet long, spits corrosive poison, and delivers a devastating electric shock that has been known to kill animals as large as a camel.



          In Polish mythology, these are field spirits who have the appearance of dwarves with multi-colored eyes and grass instead of hair. They are usually seen at noon or dusk, vigilantly ensuring that everyone is working hard, tending the fields. They are dressed in white or black, with no other colors. They cause people to lose their sense of direction, and they have been known to ride over sleeping people with their horses. If anyone falls asleep on the job, they may kill him. The way to appease them is to offer them two eggs, a cockerel, a toad, and a crow placed unseen in a ditch.



          The Pombero is an Elf in Argentinian folklore who can impregnate women with the touch of his hand, but is fond of children and, if you offer him a cigarette, will help you find anything that you’ve lost.


Revolving Beast

          In the Irish story “The Voyage of Maelduin,” the travelers land on an island where they encounter a horrific sight: a giant beast revolving itself inside its own skin, contorting its bones and assuming ever-changing shapes so that no one could say what it really was. Rearing from side to side, it caught sight of Maelduin and his men, pursuing them by casting stones as they made their escape.



          The ever-renewing pig that reappears on a roast every night, fully cooked, in Irish and Norse mythology.



          In Celtic tradition, the Salmon of Wisdom is one of the most important magical creatures, having a memory that stretches back to the beginning of the world.



          The Mesopotamian Lion Man, shown as a man above the waist and a lion below, stands upright and carries a staff. He is also called “Uridimmus” or “Mad Lion.”



          In European magical lore, a sylph is an elemental spirit of the air. The leader of the sylphs, who are invoked in magical workings where the cooperation of the winds is required, is called Paralda.



          This frightening creature, whose name means “Owl-Woman-Monster,” was reported among several tribes of North America, including the Yakama and the Shasta. She is described as an evil old woman who carries a basket and is heard calling out at twilight, “Owl is lost.” Those who follow the sound of her voice meet a terrible end.



          In Japan there’s a story about a little girl whose father had promised to sacrifice her to the Rain Serpent if it made rain come. She, however, killed the serpent.

That same day she met an old woman, who was really the Mother of Toads, and expressed gratitude to the girl for having killed the dangerous Killer of Toads, all of whom were her great-grandchildren. She gave the girl a toad skin, by means of which she could disguise herself in any shape she wished. The girl went to the royal palace disguised as an old woman and was taken on as a cook. In time she revealed herself in her true shape to a prince who fell in love with her and married her immediately.



          The Urus was a huge bull with saw-toothed horns that it used to cut down trees. The only way to capture an Urus was to wait until it accidentally drank seawater, which made it disoriented and confused so that it stabbed the ground with its horns or became entangled in the trees it was attempting to fell.


Whist Hounds

          Sir Francis Drake, the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe, is said to lead a phantom procession of headless hounds that precedes the hearse of the dead.

A Menagerie of Magical Creatures (Part I)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I was in York, England in the fall of 2006, I bought a copy of the Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures for ten pounds.

It certainly weighed ten pounds. At over 400 pages, it might include every magical creature: Native American, Polynesian, Celtic, Russian, African, South American, all mythologies are included. And, if a single creature has been omitted, I still haven’t found it.

Lately I’ve been going through and reading the whole book, scribbling down the names of my favorite fantastic beasts as I begin outlining a series of novels I’m working on. Today I wanted to share just a few of my very favorites, A—M. Check back on Thursday for the second half of the alphabet.


          This cat sneaks into people’s houses and steals their money. Has the ability to transform itself into a dragon. Or a rooster.

alicanto Alicanto

          A bird that will continue eating gold until too big to fly.


          “The Asipatra lives in the underworld of Yamapura and tortures the souls of condemned sinners. Its name means ‘Sword-Wing’—the feathers of its fleshy wings are scythe-like and slice through the air. It also has claws like knives. It lives in the branches of a tree made from spears.”


          The Badger carries a great bell and sometimes disguises himself as a venerable sage so that people will respect him.

Basket Monster

          A monster that looks like an open basket and sometimes steals away with children.


          “In mediaeval French legend, Chapalu was the name of an enormous and insatiable cat which preyed upon the unwary. In French Arthurian legend, Chapalu was overcome by Sir Kay.”

Dahak (the Devil)

          A dragon-ish creature with three heads and a body made of lizards and scorpions. His sole purpose is to destroy all goodness in the world. He was finally conquered and imprisoned in chains beneath a mountain until the end of time, when he will arise to destroy all humanity. In Xena: The Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, he occasionally takes on a human form.

(Apparently there’s a Persian prophecy that at the end of time he will be released from his prison in Mesopotamia to kill a third of mankind).

Eight-Forked Serpent of Koshi

          A Japanese monster with eight heads and eight tails whose eyes glow red. It was finally defeated when the hero Brave-Swift-Impetuous-Male created a huge enclosure with enormous towers, in each of which he placed eight vats of beer. While the serpent slept, the hero emerged from hiding and severed the eight heads. Blood from the monster flooded the whole area, but among the wreckage of the creature’s body, he discovered an enchanted sword.


          A giant wolf in Norse mythology who was imprisoned deep under the earth by a chain made from the sound of a cat, the beard of a woman, the roots of the mountains, the spittle of a bird, and the breath of a fish.


          A giant grasshopper who hunts for children and carries them away in a great basket. It was finally overcome by a mouse who tricked it into swallowing a red-hot stone which turned it into stone from within.


          In Anglo-Saxon lore, the Haug-Bai were the barrow-wights who lived in the ancient, turf-covered graves of forgotten ancestors. They were especially adept at guarding treasure. St. Guthlac of Cambridge actually lived in such a hollowed-out barrow and was continually having to defend himself against the attentions of the Haug-Bai, who kept up a running assault upon him.

These bedraggled, alarming creatures with their thin faces, long teeth, and flaming eyes had their knee joints backwards. They could only be killed if they were beheaded and then their skulls placed between their knees.

Frodo Baggins is rescued from the attention of the Barrow Wights by Tom Bombadil in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. They drag him into the dark and attack him along with his three companions. It is from the treasure hoard of the Haug Bai that Tom chooses weapons for the hobbits.

KlCfTHawk of Achill

          According to ancient Irish myth, the Hawk of Achill is one of the oldest creatures. He spoke with Fintan mac Bochra, one of the first men to colonize Ireland, a man who has also been an eagle, a falcon, and a salmon.

The hawk says that he is a staggering 6,515 years old and discusses with Fintan the whole history of Ireland from the time of the great flood.

Fintan tells the hawk that when he was in the form of a salmon, he experienced the coldest winter’s night at the waterfall of Assaroe encased in the ice, and that while he was there a bird came and pecked out one of his eyes.

The hawk admits that it was himself that did it.

When Fintan demands compensation for this theft, the hawk tells him about battles he has witnessed and feasted upon, including the conflict in which Fintan’s twelve sons fell at the Battle of Moytura Cong. The hawk stripped the flesh and took a juicy gobbet from each of the fallen sons. He also devoured the hand of the High King of Ireland, Nuadu, who afterwards made a prosthetic silver hand.

The magical property of the Hawk of Achill is length of life and memory through the changes of time.


          A gigantic fish, several miles in length, that was said to occupy the Great Northern Sea of China. Remarkably, the Kw’en could transform itself into a massive bird called the P’eng.


          Mediopollo is the Spanish folk hero in chicken form that is also known as Half Chick. As the runt of a chicken’s clutch of egg, he is smaller than his brothers and sisters. But although he never grows much larger than a chick, he has great adventures.


          The Morgens are Breton water fairies or mermaids which lure sailors to join them in their underwater palaces. One Sea Morgen, known as Dahut, was responsible for the destruction of the city of Ys.

The Morgen is ever young and seductive. She sleeps by day in an underwater grotto, rising at night to sit on the rocks along the shoreline. Sitting in the moonlight, she combs her hair with a golden comb, singing a song whose charm is irresistible. Any sailor who hears it is doomed, for if she touches him the man will die—the frustrated Morgen is left clutching a corpse, her passionate nature unfulfilled.