A Reading Life (prt. 10): Sci-Fi, Star Trek, and Junk Fiction

Related imageBy Joe LaGuardia

A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.  

In my previous post, I wrote of the melancholy I experienced in seminary.  I burned out on biblical academia, and inspiration was hard to come by.  I found solace in the writings of spiritual authors such as Henri Nouwen, but I had to find ways to get out of the biblical bubble of full-time school.

This reached a head in my last year of seminary.  We had our first child, a precious gift, but it was a difficult transition from newlyweds to new parents; and I was facing dead ends in applying for jobs and a PhD. program.  Doors were closed, and I could not see light at the end of the tunnel.  I started seeing a counselor for a season.  I was depressed (for reals).  I needed a hobby.

When I finally graduated seminary, I only had a part time job while my wife worked full time in education, so I became the stay-at-home dad for our first born.  When my wife came home from work, I went off to my part-time job at church.

My daughter and I had fun every day, but when it was nap time I was happy to have some quiet time to watch television.  I started watching the old Star Trek: The Next Generation series, which my father watched when I was a child.

I watched it religiously every day at 1 PM.  I got caught up in the plot, the characters, and the action.  I did not appreciate the show when I was younger, but for some reason it struck a chord and I got hooked.

Enter junk fiction.  Junk fiction is my moniker for fiction that has absolutely nothing to do with ministry.  It is neither religious nor informative; it neither enlightens nor inspires.  It is fiction through and through, and it is “junk” because you can find it anywhere–from used book stores to yard sales.

I started purchasing Star Trek TNG books for a quarter a piece at an Atlanta bookstore.  The plot lines were as cheesy as the show, but enjoyable.  The first book I purchased was a trilogy, The Q Continuum by Greg Cox.  Since Q had been one of my favorite characters (he had me at Farpoint), I enjoyed it thoroughly.

My collection of junk fiction expanded.  I purchased old Twilight Zone anthologies by Rod Serling, dime-store capers, the Enders series (more on that in a future post!) by Orson Scott Card, and (at a friend’s recommendation) novels by Barbara Kingsolver.  I stumbled upon the off-beat works of T. C. Boyle.

To this day, I watch TNG episodes on Netflix while I fold laundry.  I enjoy the new iteration of movies by J. J. Abrams et. al.  And it is not uncommon for me to read one of those twenty-five-cent novels that are still stacked on my workbench in the garage.  Every Christmas I indulge by purchasing a new TNG book (Paramount still publishes about three or four novels a year), and I still get excited when I hear that soaring theme song (it was my ringtone for a while).  Its junk, but its fun–and it helped pull me out of that depression after all.

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Halloween can help a child’s faith development

I’m probably one of only a handful of Baptist ministers that you’ll ever meet who actually considers Halloween a favorite holiday.  Every year, I look forward to reliving the wonderfully rich memories of my childhood by invoking all of the imaginary and fantastic surrealism that comes with the season: trick or treating, decorating the house with cobwebs, carving pumpkins, and watching “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.”

One of the other reasons why I love Halloween is that it plays right into my big, bodacious imagination.  I love fantasy and fiction, and there’s nothing better than Halloween that brings out the best literary archetypes of old: vampires (Bram Stoker), ghosts (Shakespeare), wizards (Wizard of Oz), and creepy animals (Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven and The Black Cat).  This also brings out the best in my spooky story-telling, which is a favorite activity I do with the children in the neighborhood on Halloween night.

Aside from Halloween night, my children and I participate in story-telling, make-believe, and dress-up in our household all year long.  These activities build my children’s sense of creativity and take them into various pretend universes.  I am blessed when they are generous enough to invite me to play along!

Self-expression through role-playing is critical in a child’s faith development.  According to James Fowler, a definitive scholar on faith development, make-believe “provides powerful symbolizations for children’s inner terrors and for the hidden fantasies … that bring them secret feelings of guilt.  [Fantasies] also provide the child with tangible models of courage and virtue and with conviction-awakening stories showing that goodness and resourcefulness triumph over evil and sloth.”

In other words, storytelling allows children to objectify their inner fears and struggles and see them as a healthy part of life—fear when held in perspective keeps us safe; exploring the mysteries of a dark, dark room can lead to candy-corn blessings.

Unfortunately a majority of children in America are sitting in front of TVs and computers without parents monitoring content.  This can feed them sensational programming void of a moral anchor.

James Fowler gives this warning: “The desirability of children’s exposure to death, poverty, treachery and maliciousness in the context of fairy tales and Bible stories, when told to them by trusted adults with whom their feelings can be tested and shared is one thing.  It does not…sanction children’s exposure to the super-realistic violence, materialism and sexploitation of prime-time television programming.”

My family’s way of doing Halloween ultimately helps my children translate the metaphors, signs, and symbols of stories into tangible life lessons.  This also helps them in their faith as they navigate and learn about the symbols of Christianity.  Just consider the many symbols we use at church: Christ is the “Lamb” of God; we take communion by drinking and eating elements representative of body and blood; we hang crosses– ancient tools of persecution and execution—in our sanctuaries.   Each one of these symbols has the power to teach important lessons of our faith.

Inevitably, then, fairy tales, dress-up, and yes, Halloween, can help children garner the necessary resources to discern fact from fiction, make-believe from truth, and fairy tale from the faithfully true Word of God.  That is a part of the power of stories.