Once upon a time, the Master and Commander of all that exists, Supreme Emperor of the Cosmos grew a person out of the ground, breathed his own life’s breath into him, named him, and gave him an identity that made sense only inasmuch he knew his maker. This magnificent Person put some of himself in these creatures he called humans: a mind, a heart, a soul, creative ability, the capacity to have relationships, emotions, intelligence, and a thousand other things. Our need to work comes from a need to imitate the creative prowess of our Father; the need for food, water, and shelter reminds us that, ultimately, we live by every word from the mouth of the Ancient Holy One. There are eight billion people alive at this moment, and at least that many before us, and no two of us are or have been alike. Now that is a level of prowess – of plots and peoples and places – not even the grand-masters of epics could attain. And this great, glorious Father of All had it in his mind to “put eternity in our hearts” and invites us to find him and know him to the very depths of his soul.
He’s made us so terribly complex and simple all at the same time, and there’s a beauty to humanity that is surpassed only by his God who is inexpressibly glorious and wishes us for himself. And even in our fallen state, we manage to retain some sense of a faded glory, some incessant longing for what we know is lost but cannot necessarily articulate. I read a book the other day in which the author stated that what distinguishes us from animals, apart from language, is our need to be recognized as human, to retain our dignity. I think in some ways this is that longing in action: It’s God who makes us human, but humanity has fallen. Our dignity, our glory, cannot come from fellow humans, despite our attempts to make it so, but from our true identity and position as imago dei – the image of God.
In my endeavor to become a better writer a few years ago, I made a decision to study outside my own paradigm. This meant a study of non-Christian-themed stories, both written and filmed, and during that time I made two (of several) discoveries: First, most non-Christian stories are humanistic in nature, meaning that humanity is the center and pinnacle of all things. Second, my favorites celebrate humanity. These writers were unafraid to explore what is the vast color palette of humankind we as writers must convey as writers. Ultimately, I had to shift my thinking in terms of what qualified as depicting “real, gritty, and edgy” fiction. It had nothing to do with diluting good and evil, or idolizing humanity, or seeing how much a writer can get away with. It had the far superior motive of exploring – and exposing – human nature. Mankind, at his zenith, at the peak of his glory, is still so far from enough. And that’s the great tragedy and beauty that unfolds.
The truth is, a person with a good motive can still do something wrong, and an evil person could have had a decent motive. They might not even be fully aware of their driving motivators. We writers don’t excuse these things, but we do put them on display for the world to see, for the world to know that this is what happens when we try to make ourselves gods. We aren’t God; we’re very human, and humanity at its absolute best cannot compare with the inexpressible greatness of the Most High.
The first time I really considered this, I think, was when my friend introduced me to anime, and, by the finale of the third one, I realized its beauty lay in its themes of brotherhood, human nature, and redemption. The good shows blended the natural and supernatural worlds and either question human ethics or feature vastly complicated social and political dynamics. There’s one where the world is so terribly bleak that even the one ray of hope struggles against despair. In another, some characters try to redeem themselves from their past crimes while the ones who survived their crimes either forgive or seek revenge.
Science fiction, fantasy, classical writings, and horror seem to have also capitalized on this. Godlike humans with supernatural powers are, at their core, flawed humans who still need help outside themselves, from Achilles to Rand al’Thor, the Radiants, and a Reaper named Phoenix. Achilles is an emotional man, grief-stricken over Briseis and Patroclus and his fellow, dying Greeks, enraged at Agamemnon and Hector, but kind to an old war-chief who loses face in a public event. Phoenix is typically torn between following the law or following his moral compass. Each of the Radiants has a tragic past and a fatally flawed present. They cannot save themselves, any of them, much less anyone else. And not one of them can be reduced to a label. Redemption arcs never complete; heroes are deconstructed; protagonists called godlike might really be more accurately called demonic; the one called cruel and savage may actually display the most compassion.
The older I’ve gotten, and the better student of the written craft I’ve tried to become, the more I’ve come to understand that I cannot claim to love God if I do not claim his people. Moreover, I cannot claim devotion to the Creator of humanity while despising the humans he made or distorting their image. The imago dei is, no doubt, in need of regeneration, but it is nonetheless imago dei. And the God whose image they were made of is an eternity ahead of us in reclaiming what was lost – indeed, Colossians says he has reconciled the world. But I am convinced, more than ever, that all of this brings us to being unafraid to write humanity as it is: beautiful, tragic, and redeemable.