This blog will soon be consumed with posts about Banneker Bones and the Alligator People and Banneker Bones and the Untitled Third Adventure. There's no traditional religion in those books because I am, at this point in my career, uncomfortable with the responsibility of discussing religion with impressionable readers. I'm seeking out authors of middle grade books with religion in them for podcast conversations in the hopes of becoming the sort of writer who can be trusted to do the same.
Because I'm having those public conversations and because parents of children who are reading Banneker Bones may be reading The Book of David and my zombie stories (I haven't a single reservation about discussing religion in books for teens and adults), I feel it's important to have this post in place so readers will know where I stand on God and religion as of its writing (if I've stopped evolving my thoughts, I must be dead, and so afterlife speculation may no longer be necessary).
Enough people have emailed me about flying saucers (which I believe in), I've found it useful to have written this long post about them. I'm hoping to similarly use this post for folks who want to know my thoughts on God.
I'm not an atheist, but it's fine with me if you are, Esteemed Reader, so long as you don't get all smug about it. You can't know for 100% certain there's no God and no afterlife, so maintain a little humility, please. I don't have a firm understanding of God and I can't tell you The Truth, only my truth... thus far. But I have experienced miracles large and small and when you've had such experiences, atheism is off the table, frustrating though that can sometimes be.
I was raised mostly in the non-denomination denomination of the Christian church, but I also moonlighted as a Baptist, and have since attended a wide variety of religious services for multiple religions. I don't have all the answers, but I've yet to be convinced anyone else does either.
Some religious ideas feel more true than others, but we may as well be ants speculating about what lies at the bottom of the ocean; as opposed to bipedal mammals with a relatively short life span attempting to understand the nature of God.
There are only so many ways to report the same information and so rather than restate what I've said more eloquently elsewhere, I'm first going to present spoiler-free passages from the afterword for All Together Now: A Zombie Story and my post on diversity in children's literature. If you've already read those posts, feel free to skip ahead to where I'll be relating a couple of those miracles I experienced firsthand.
The older I get, the more I believe in something greater in the universe beyond ourselves. I've read Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, and Christopher Hitchens, and they're all very smart guys. Hitchens, in particular, wrote and spoke in a manner that makes me long for such an apt capability in my own work (not likely).
I can see the appeal of the strict atheist view of the world: We live, we die, and because there is no us after death, it's not something to be worried about. There's Nobody in the sky watching out for us, sorry to say, but we don't have to answer to Him/Her/It either, so you take the good with the bad. Things happen because of human action and natural action and that is all. The universe is random and does not care. If it seems otherwise to you, you might be slightly mentally ill, and the poor atheist has to contend with life among the vast majority of us who may appear to be suffering varying degrees of mental illness:)
I could hold with the atheist view if life didn't get weird every so often. But it does and I'm not the only one who's noticed. It could be I get weird and every time a coincidence happens, I go off thinking the universe is trying to tell me something because it's all about me, baby. Could be.
I submit to you that if I'm suddenly struck dead, all consciousness gone in an instant, and I believed kooky stuff right up until that moment, it's not going to bother me one bit as there will be no me to be bothered. And if my kooky beliefs helped me in this life more than they hindered me and I didn't use them as a pretext to harm others, I don't see the problem.
But a whole lot of people feel the presence of Something in this world and I've felt It as well. Refusing to acknowledge that because of a belief it's not possible is as much of a dogma as actual dogma. I'm perfectly willing to say I don't know how the universe works, and it doesn't bother me since there's way more stuff I don't know than stuff I do.
I've always loved the story of the elephant as a metaphor for the world's religions: Seven blind men from seven villages are gathered in secret to learn about a great beast. Each man is allowed to feel a different part of the elephant, then they're sent back to their villages to tell of what they felt. The seven men tell the people seven very different stories about the same beast, and they're all telling a different version of the same truth. The moral of the story: if you want to know what an elephant looks like, don't send a blind guy. Google it:)
I grew up in the church and I appreciate it. The folks who brought me up were kind and friendly and they kept me from turning out to be a total jerk. I have fond memories of mountain backpacking with Christians, spelunking, going to church camp, and eating homemade meals at my minister's table. He and his wife are awesome. I would hate for old Sunday school teachers of mine to read All Together Now or The Book of David and think I don't appreciate the hard work they put into raising me. I love them and I'll forever be grateful for their kindness and decency.
But I remember reading Pet Semmetary on a long bus ride home from a missions trip and being told to put it away and instead read the Bible. Later, I was again told to put down a nonfiction book of science and instead focus on a dubious book of magical fairy tales. I was forced to sing songs programming me to think and act in a way deemed acceptable by others, and told horrific tales of hell way scarier than anything I've written to frighten me into submission. I was told these tales as a young child.
And I got off light. I had friends who were treated in unspeakable ways in the name of God. My family donates to Indiana Youth Group, an organization that provides shelter to LGBTQ kids who've been kicked out of their homes, usually for religious reasons. Religion is capable of turning parents against their own children in the name of interpreting the will of God, and any social tool with that kind of power should be approached with caution and skepticism.
Much of life is flat and straightforward: get up, eat, go to work/school, go home, eat, sleep, repeat. If I step on a tack, I will bleed, and it isn't a supernatural occurrence. The tack isn't out to get me, it wasn't destined from its creation to stab me (probably). It was simply in my path. Had I walked elsewhere, or paid more attention to where I was walking, I might not have stepped on it.
And yet, I believe I have experienced direct divine intervention at least twice (and probably far more often in subtler ways) that saved my life on both occasions. I don't want to get too far off course, so let me just say that both events could be written off as coincidence or even mental illness (common enough in writers). They will not convince the true skeptic. But I personally experienced the events and I know something greater than myself got involved to directly influence the course of my life.
And that's all I know.
I'll assume many of you Esteemed Readers have had one or two events of high strangeness in your life. They're common enough that most everyone has at least one in a lifetime, even if they insist on denying it or calling it something else.
After a genuine supernatural event, life has a way of getting on much the way it did prior to the event: get up, eat, go to work, etc. And the event is just there, dangling, something that does not add up, does not conveniently fit in the otherwise logically structured narrative of life. If I had formal religious beliefs, I suppose I could accept that Jesus was looking out for me, and so long as I continue to have faith and live in a particular way, He'll keep it up. But at this point in my life, I'm not interested in formal religion and there was nothing in either experience that suggested to me with any certainty the identity of my Divine Intervene-r (who was that masked Entity!?!).
Nor do I have any insight as to why keeping the author of Pizza Delivery alive is apparently a priority over aiding the many starving and diseased children of the world. Beyond the fact of the events' occurrence, I have no knowledge of the why or even full details of the how, only speculation.
And speculating about the intentions of the Almighty is a good way to eventually end up in a compound surrounded by my own cult—which, be honest, Esteemed Reader: part of you always knew was where this blog about reading and writing middle grade novels would eventually lead:)
I like to imagine that after death, we awaken in an arcade, having just achieved a high score on an extremely realistic Rick and Morty style videogame. We grab a drink, maybe a piece of pizza, then get some quarters to try another game. Maybe we come back here as a shark (heck yeah!), or maybe we go someplace else and play a different game. I think that sounds more fun than streets paved with gold and a crystal sea in an exclusive club where only fundamentalist are hanging and most of my writer friends are kept someplace else (you know which of you I'm talking about).
But once again, I could be wrong and the afterlife is much different (maybe it's like Beetlejuice). Or again, there could be no existence beyond death and none of us will be bothered as we won't exist. I think we go on, hopefully to a better place where there are more Batman stories than I could ever read, or perhaps we go on to our next life aided by the knowledge we gained in this one. We could indulge in endless speculation, but my brushes with the Divine have given me no verifiable knowledge of the afterlife.
Enough teasing. I promised miracles, so let's get to them.
I could list various events of individual synchronicity that have led me to the conclusion that there's an unseen order to the universe, but I won't. There have been a number of times things have come together in my life that felt guided by a Higher Power, leading me more and more to the conclusion that life isn't exactly what it appears. Last year, my family fell on some hard times and we got some amazingly good news at the last possible second that saved us from ruin. Since then, I've worried a little less as it served to remind me God's still looking out for us, even though I sleep in on Sundays.
That story's too fresh and could be attributed to coincidence—not by me, but by others—so I'm not counting it for our purposes. Nor will I count the time I fell off a cliff that should've killed me, but I prayed on the way down and walked away with only a few bruises. I was eight at the time and don't trust my memory. Nor will I count that time I got an acceptance letter from a literary agent after years of rejection the EXACT SAME DAY I'd lost my day job of four years and was feeling incredibly low and hopeless.
There have been a number of times things have come together in my life that felt guided by a Higher Power, leading me more and more to the conclusion that life isn't exactly what it appears. I also believe I've come dangerously close to inhuman evil, but that's another blog post and something that drives my horror stories. The world is a strange place, and I'm figuring out my way through it as best as I can just like the rest of you. If reality isn't a simulation, it sure does a good impression of one every so often.
I panicked and slammed my brakes while traveling at 65 miles-per-hour. My father was in the passenger seat, my brother was sleeping in the back, and we all screamed as the family roadster spun around in the center of the highway, doing two full spins, a car passing us—a car that should've hit and killed us, but instead narrowly missed us as though we were engaged in a high-speed vehicle ballet.
Our car came to a stop in the median and cars continued to speed by. After several deep breaths, I waited for a break in traffic, than drove us to an exit so my Dad could take over and drive us the rest of the way home, all of us properly petrified.
People get lucky, it's true. YouTube has multiple videos of near collisions and I've had a few since, though none so dramatic. If someone told me this story happened to them, I'd believe it happened, but the bit about the Divine intervention would strike me as me an open question. Because I was behind the wheel, I know I didn't save us.
I felt a deep sense of calm when our vehicle started spinning. I turned the wheel in just the precise way to navigate the car where it needed to go despite the chaos. I say 'I' because it was my hands on the wheel and my foot on the brake, though I felt as though Something other than me was moving them.
Could be Dr. Sam Becket quantum leapt into me to set right what once went wrong. SOMETHING HAPPENED that I can't explain and 24 years later I still remember the feeling of serenity that the Kent men would not die that day because it was the will of SOMETHING greater—possibly saving one or both of the others and bailing me out simply as a means to an end for all I know.
Perhaps you're thinking: if this is your definition of a miracle, it's pretty flimsy. I never promised I parted the Red Sea, Esteemed Reader:) This second miracle is a bit more pronounced, but wouldn't count as empirical evidence for people who aren't me.
In the case of the first miracle, some of you Esteemed Readers may be inclined to think I'm merely mistaken, however well-intention-ed. To discount this second miracle, you'll have to think me a liar.
What I tell you next ACTUALLY HAPPENED:
My heart's racing as I prepare to write this because I know how it will sound—makes me wonder how many strange happenings we might hear tell of if the experiencers could get over their nerves. So give me some confidence, Esteemed Reader. Imagine yourself and your fellow readers singing and clapping your hands in robes and possibly one of you is slapping a tambourine and you're all singing: Testify, testify, step up, Ninja, and testify...
Oh, okay then, if y'all insist:) I'll take the podium.
Starting now, this ACTUALLY HAPPENED:
As a man of 20, I decided to go back to school and get my degree even though I'd flunked out of film school and had been working a decent gig as a travel agent (they let me read books at my desk). I'd already collected some rejection letters for my first novels (fair), so I decided to study literature and creative writing for as long as I could get my employer to reimburse me. It was pretty sweet and without that program, I probably wouldn't have been encouraged to finish school.
I'd already started my first week of classes when I finally got my reimbursement deposit, without which I couldn't afford the semester's tuition. Instead of paying the school right away, I was headed to hang out at my friends' house in a rougher part of Indianapolis when I was in a minor car accident.
Two extremely tough-looking gentlemen turned tight enough toward my crappy car in their crappy car that I T-boned them. Later, I read that this is actually a fairly common scam, but in that moment I was certain the accident was my fault.
And I didn't have insurance.
No problem, the tough guys assured me, grimly assessing the damage to their crappy car I was 80% certain had been there before our "accident." They'd settle the whole thing just between us for 4k. I told them I couldn't do that, there had to be another way. 3k? Couldn't do that either. But 2k? That I could do.
I'd just received my tuition reimbursement. Who needs to worry about college if you get caught in a car accident without insurance?
Both our cars were drive-able, so they followed me to an ATM, me not believing my good fortune that they were willing to settle this without calling the police, and the one time I had more than $200 bucks in my account!
We pulled up to the ATM machine, I whipped out my card, patience fellas, let me just give you all my money to make this go away, sorry it's taking so long, let me try again...
The tough guys were getting impatient...
I should explain: The night before I'd rented a couple videos using this same ATM card because I'm old enough to remember when you went to Blockbuster when you wanted to watch a movie and you didn't have a cell phone to call for help when you were in an accident.
But Blockbuster is not where I went. I'm telling you the absolute truth, Esteemed Reader, so help me, Whomever, and the truth is I rented my movies from an adult video store (ye without sin may cast the first stone), one on 86th Street and Michigan Road in Indianapolis, to be exact. The ATM machine I visited the next afternoon was at Keystone Avenue and 46th Street.
No matter how many times I punched in my ATM key, I couldn't access my account, and the two rough-looking fellas behind were getting more impatient and using rough language.
The issue, of course, was the dirty, mean-looking man who ran the register at the adult video store. He made several snide comments and ran my card not once, but twice, and I didn't like that. Not one bit.
The next day I went to work and did my travel agent-ing, all the while thinking about that dirty smut peddler (I was a righteous smut consumer). What would a dirty smut peddler like him do with my ATM information? Could I trust such a fellow? Probably, but then again...
I was still bothered by these thoughts, after work and driving toward school on Michigan Avenue and somewhere between 86th and 76th Street, when...
...and this ACTUALLY HAPPENED...
A voice spoke to me.
It was a male voice, but not my voice, and it said three words: Cancel. Your. Card.
And that's all it said—nothing so edifying as "hey this is the One True God, so circumcise your babies and eat fish on Fridays and don't get any tattoos or piercings—just those three words. There was no one else in the car to verify the words were said. I was perfectly sober, but of course, the only person who can verify that is the same lone witness to those spoken words.
I tell you, I heard those words spoken aloud. And they freaked me out. To prove it, here's what I did next:
I turned around and drove to my bank, even though it made me late for class. I stood in line, cursing myself the whole time for being so stupid and paranoid, and I told the teller I'd lost my ATM card even though it was in my wallet. "Are you sure?" she asked.
"Apparently so," I said through gritted teeth and withdrew $60.00 so I'd for sure have enough money to get through the next two days until my new ATM card came in the mail.
I went to class, annoyed with myself, but feeling strongly that when you hear a voice like freaking Samuel in the Old Testament, you'd best comply. After class, I drove to my friends' house, again, alone after dark and with no witnesses, when two fellas struck me...
Though it had only been a few hours, I couldn't get any money out of my account no matter how hard these two tough guys glared at me. I explained the situation that I'd had to cancel the card, but if they gave me their contact info, I could get the money to them in a day when the bank was open. I gave them the $60 I had and we exchanged phone numbers.
At this point, one of the fellas pushed me toward their car and showed me they had a hand gun and said, and I swear this is actually what he said, "I don't play." It sounded really tough and intimidating and I nodded fearfully and promised to call them the next day.
We got into our separate cars and I drove a fake way to my friend's house and I never called them, of course, and I never saw them again. For all I know, they joined the military and helped to take out Osama Bin Laden. Or maybe they took over an orphanage and have improved the lives of countless children. Perhaps one of them is discovering the cure for cancer as we speak.
I can't know about their story, but every last word of my story is true.
What might've happened if my ATM card hadn't been canceled earlier that day? They might've shot me. I might not have finished my degree, which means I might not have met Mrs. Ninja. I can't know the course of events that might've been set into action, only that they were apparently bad enough that Divine Intervention prevented them from happening.
I don't know what happens when we die, but there doesn't seem to be a way out of dying, so let's hope it's something agreeable. The world is vast and full of wonders and don't ever believe the person who says it isn't.
There is a higher order to reality I can't fully perceive and I don't expect others to perceive It either. But It's there. And sometimes It says something helpful like, "Cancel your card."
In a world where something as strange as that can happen, who knows what else is possible? For me, discounting the existence of God, whatever That is, would be intellectually dishonest.