Who Review: Face the Raven

Doctor Who "FaceTheRaven" picture by Stuart ManningThe Doctor and Clara are surprised when Rigsy–“Local Knowledge” from last season’s story “Flatline”–calls the TARDIS emergency line. He’s got a tattoo on the back of his neck, but he doesn’t know where it came from. Indeed, he doesn’t remember anything about the events of the previous night. But this tattoo is no ordinary tattoo–it’s counting down minutes. And, as the Doctor discovers, they are the number of minutes Rigsy has left to live. Together the three explore the hidden streets of London for the people who gave him the tattoo, and stumble upon a strange world of secret aliens trying to live in peace, ruled by a long-time acquaintance. It seems a crime has been committed, and Rigsy stands accused. He must either prove himself innocent, or “face the raven.” Time’s running out, and, unknown to the Doctor, the stakes are higher than he could imagine…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen the episode. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

After last week’s questionable offering from Mark Gatiss, we get back to form with, I think, a much more solid story. The idea that an ancient city like London might have hidden streets, like hidden closets or rooms in an old house, is very appealing. There’s so much you can do with that, like, for example, have a street where all kinds of otherwise hostile aliens co-exist under a peace agreement. Outbreaks of lawlessness are punished by death, and the countdown to death is marked on the accused’s neck. Sentence is carried out by “the raven”–a shade that can hunt a people down wherever they might be, so there’s no escaping justice. Of course, this is a fallible, Draconian justice, where guilt is determined more by crowd opinion than by evidence (do we have a bit of social commentary here?), and even stealing medical supplies for one’s spouse is punishable by death.

It was nice to have Rigsy back. He was one of the more popular characters from last season, and, given his involvement with the events in “Flatline,” I suppose he was a natural choice for a comeback. Of course, if Moff would bring back Rigsy, one imagines he has plans to bring back Shona from “Last Christmas”–she was also a fan favorite, and considered by many to be companion material. Who knows…?

Speaking of new companions, I suppose that spot is now vacant since this episode saw Clara’s departure. Russell T. Davies managed to avoid killing off companions, but Moff seems a little less willing to give the Doctor’s companions a nice send-off. Amy and Rory were both sucked back in time by Weeping Angels (“The Angels Take Manhattan”), and Clara unwittingly seals her own doom by taking Rigsy’s tattoo. Her final scene with the Doctor was very emotional, and I’m sure there were few dry eyes as Clara accepted her fate, and chose not to run but to face the raven. I have to say, while it was good and powerful, I thought it a bit drawn out. I found myself thinking back to Adric’s demise in “Earthshock.” There was something very simple and understated about it that made it, I think, at least as powerful. His last goodbye to his friends as they left him to solve the logic puzzle that would give him control over the ship–the Doctor knowing the odds were slim he would survive. The shot of Adric gripping his brother’s belt, after the dying Cyberman shoots the control panel, ending any hope Adric had of getting out alive. The shot of the ship crashing into the Earth, the Doctor, Nyssa, and Tegan watching helplessly from the safety of the TARDIS. The silent credit role at the end over Adric’s broken badge. That, to me, was as gut-wrenching as Clara’s speech, the Doctor’s protestations, and Clara’s slo-mo death fall and silent scream. But it was a bold end to the impossible girl’s time on Who, and, as always, brilliantly performed. The little tribute to Clara after the credits was also a nice touch.

So I was wrong about last week’s story having anything to do with Clara’s exit, which is a shame. That really does relegate “Sleep No More” to being this season’s “Love and Monsters.” Sorry, Mark! :)

It appears this was all a grand plot to capture the Doctor. Someone needs him, someone who could not have asked the Doctor directly because he would have refused. And now the Doctor has been transported away, and I can’t help thinking Missy’s involved in this somehow. I guess we’ll find out next time.

There are my thoughts–what did you think?

A Writing Tip from Church

Every Sunday, our church’s worship service includes a time of pastor-led corporate confession of sin, followed by a few moments of silence for private confession. The words to the congregational confession are usually projected for all to see, and they are also in the bulletin. We read along with the pastor, and then take a few minutes to search our own hearts before the Lord.

I have to confess that I was a little distracted this week by the phrasing chosen for the corporate confession. I won’t quote the whole thing, just the relevant lines:

We live in constant fear that we will be discovered as frauds. We even deceive ourselves. Forgive us. Jesus, your grace intrudes the mundane. It exposes and heals, humbles and makes bold….

As we read along, I, and many others, read this as “Forgive us, Jesus. Your grace…” instead of “Forgive us. Jesus, your grace…” (notice the difference?) Aside from printing the confession in a larger font, and maybe highlighting the punctuation by using bright red or lime green, how might such a misreading be prevented? I think a simple re-wording would have done the trick. Try this:

We live in constant fear that we will be discovered as frauds. We even deceive ourselves. Forgive us. Your grace, Jesus, intrudes the mundane. It exposes and heals, humbles and makes bold…

I don’t know about you, but phrased like that, my mind naturally stops at the period before “Your grace,” whereas before it wanted to say, “Forgive us, Jesus.”

This reminded me how much writers need to take care not only when choosing which words to use, but also where to place those words in a sentence. Does the current word order best communicate the author’s intended meaning, or is it likely to confuse? Does the word order promote easier, more fluid reading, so the reader isn’t stumbling over words? One way to answer these questions is to read your work aloud. If you have trouble with it, then your readers will too, no doubt.

Oh, and yes, during the private confession time, I asked forgiveness for being distracted by syntax… :)

Who Review: Sleep No More

DoctorWho_SleepNoMoreA rescue team on Le Verrier Space Station stumble upon the Doctor and Clara wandering the passageways. There doesn’t appear to be anyone else on board, so together they explore, trying to find out what happened to the crew. They soon find themselves being chased by a monster that crumbles into sand when they trap its arm in a door. On closer inspection the Doctor determines that it’s organic. Then they find the Morpheus machines, designed to mess with people’s brains so they get the benefits of a month’s worth of sleep in five minutes, enabling them to stay awake with no ill effect. The Doctor hypothesizes that the monsters are a by-product of the machines, a thought that is especially discomforting after Clara is dragged into one of them. But it also appears there are more monsters, and they are carnivorous, and restless…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen the episode. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

This was an odd episode. First, it appears to be a single-parter–the first of the season. Second, there was no title sequence. It was also the first Doctor Who story made in what’s known as “found footage” style. That is, the whole story is told by means of a recording that was made at the time but discovered after the fact. Kind of like the movies “The Blair Witch Project” and “Paranormal Activity.” One could argue that the New Series 2 story “Love and Monsters” was actually the first Who episode to take on the “home documentary” look, but that story wasn’t strictly speaking “found footage” since it was Elton’s recording, and he was still around to show it.

I’m not really sure what to think of this episode. It was an interesting idea, and I don’t object to them trying something different. But did it work as a story? Coming from Mark Gatiss, who has written a few episodes of Who and who, most notably, is Moff’s “Sherlock” partner in crime, one might expect something exceptional. But I’ve found Mark’s Who contributions to be inconsistent. “The Unquiet Dead” was excellent, and both “Cold War” and “The Crimson Horror” were good. But “Victory of the Daleks” wasn’t that season’s best, neither was “Robot of Sherwood.”

The mood of this story was suitably creepy, with plenty of tension, but the pacing seemed slow to me. And the only characters that appeared to serve any purpose (aside from the Doctor and Clara) were Rassmussen and Nagata, the leader of the rescue team. None of the others stood out–they were just there to be scared and get into trouble. Is that unfair? I suppose the test of this would be to ask: if the episode had only consisted of the Doctor, Clara, Rassmussen, and Nagata, would the events and the outcome have been significantly different?

And then there was the ending where Rassmussen dismisses the notion that the effects of the Morpheus machine only applied to those who had been in the machine, saying anyone who watched the video would be affected. Of course, this is meant to spook us as Rassmussen dissolves into dust. Very “Tales of the Unexpected.” :) Now, the fact Rassmussen doesn’t deny that those who have been in the Morpheus machine will eventually turn to monsters might not bode well for Clara. Is this the way Clara will exit the show, suddenly turning into a pile of dust in the middle of episode 10? I guess we’ll see…

What did you think?

PS: The pictures I’ve been using for the past couple of seasons are poster designs created for each episode by Stuart Manning. Sorry for not giving credit before!

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 9:7-12

7 And the likeness of the locusts [were] like horses having been prepared for battle, and upon their heads something like crowns of gold, and their faces like faces of men, 8 and they had hair like [the] hair of women, and their teeth were as lions’ [teeth], 9 and they had chests like breastplates made of iron, and the sound of their wings [was] like [the] sound of chariots of many horses rushing into battle, 10 and they have tails similar to scorpions, even stings, and in their tails [was] their authority to harm men for five months. 11 They have over them a king, the angel of the abyss. His name in Hebrew [is] Abaddon, and in Greek he has [the] name Apolluon. 12 The first woe has passed; behold, yet two woes are coming after these things.

Once again, my translation is not in the nicest of English, but is serves to bring out the flow of the Greek. The same Greek word, thôrax is translated by the words “chest” and “breastplate.” Some translations use “breastplate” in both places, however I don’t think locusts have breastplates, so I prefer “chest” as a reference to their mid-region. Also, it seems grammatically awkward to say “the likeness of the locusts [were],” and you may wonder why I supplied “were” instead of “was” (the words is square brackets are not in the Greek and must be supplied by English in order to make any sense of the translation). The reason is that “likeness” in the Greek is actually plural, so I’m using the plural form of “to be” to bring that out.

We started this time with a review of 9:1-6 for the benefit of some who missed last time. See the notes for that section to read the discussion of the star, the abyss, and the un-locust-like behavior of these locusts. The second part of this passage on the fifth trumpet goes into more detail with regard to the appearance of these strange locusts. Not only do they not do as locusts do, but they don’t really look a whole lot like locusts, either–at least as John saw them. He tries his best to relate what he sees to things his audience would be familiar with: horses, crowns, women’s hair, breastplates, scorpions, and chariots. We should observe a couple of things from this:

  • These are not literal locusts. If they were, John could have just said, “they were locusts” and his audience would have understood. The comparison of these creatures to locusts appears to begin and end with their swarming behavior, and maybe the fact they have wings. From the similes John uses to describe their heads, teeth(!), hair(!!), and tails, they sound more monstrous than insect-like.
  • Whatever John is describing, they are organic. These are not machines. If they were, we would expect him to use a lot more metallic imagery, and perhaps comparisons to weapons and tools. Instead, he speaks of horses, hair, lions, and tails.

If they are so unlike locusts, why start by saying they were like locusts? Again, maybe John had the swarming activity in mind, but perhaps he also intended to draw our attention to Exodus 10, and the plague of locusts God brought upon Egypt. We’ve already discussed the links between these trumpets and the Exodus plagues, and how that underscores the fact that God is bringing judgment upon mankind, just as He brought judgment upon the Egyptians in Moses’ day. We also see locusts spoken of as angels of judgement in Joel 1:4, and as a way of describing an army in Joel 1:6-7.

So, if these locusts aren’t actually locusts, what are they? There are a number of possibilities:

  • A literal army. This notion is supported by the mention of breastplates, chariots, men’s faces, and teeth. Even the women’s hair could suggest the long hair of barbarian hordes. Roman men stopped wearing their hair long after about the third century B.C., so those nations that favored long hair on men would be considered by the Romans to be barbarian, uncivilized, and uncultured.
  • Strange hybrid creatures. Bearing in mind this is a vision of the supernatural, John could be describing a strange breed of hellish creature coming out of the abyss. Certainly, if there is an escalation of supernatural activity associated with these judgments, it’s possible the forces arrayed against men could be of a kind, even species, unknown on earth.
  • Demonic beings. Again, if this is a vision of the supernatural, and these locusts are a large horde whose sole purpose is to terrorize men led by a fallen angel, then why can’t they be demons? If we suppose demons can take on a horrific appearance, then maybe that’s what John is seeing.
  • A blend of some, or all, of the above. We can be certain that whatever these creatures are, they are led by a fallen angel–maybe even Satan–and their purpose is evil. That they are at least demonic in motive and intent is, I think, without question. These demonically-driven creatures could then be either actual demons, or human armies taken over by demonic forces. These are the two I’m most persuaded by, though I’m inclined a little more to the former than the latter, largely due to the nature of the torment inflicted. As we noted last time, while there might be physical pain involved, the torment is largely psychological and spiritual, leading to extreme, suicidal depression.

Bearing in mind this is a vision, the descriptions may not relate to a physical reality, but might just be the Lord’s way of conveying to us the nature of this devastating, demonic force:

  • They are like horses prepared for battle, so they are ready to fight.
  • They wear crowns of gold–such crowns, or wreaths, are symbols of victory, strength, and power. This is a symbol of dominion.
  • They have faces like men, which could imply human intelligence. They can reason, and, indeed, reflect the worst of our sinful natures.
  • They have long hair like women, which, like the barbarian hordes that assailed the Roman armies, give the impression of wild, undisciplined, and dangerous fighters. Some commentators think the “long hair” is a description of antennae. Not only do I think this is overly (and unnecessarily) literal, but an insult to ladies! :)
  • They have teeth like lions, which recalls Joel 1:6 where teeth lay waste to the land, a picture of the ferocity of the attackers.
  • They have chests like iron breastplates, which further underscores the creatures’ readiness to fight, to do battle.
  • Their wings sound like chariots charging into battle, reminding us that this isn’t a swarm of insects, but a major military force ready to strike. This is a picture of power, speed, and strength.
  • They have stings in their scorpion-like tails, which takes us back to 9:3-5, and the fact they bring torment to men via their stings, but they don’t kill. The power of this army is in that sting, and the painful affliction they can bring to men, driving them to hopelessness and suicide. But only those who are not sealed. As we said last time, God’s people are immune to this torment.

However we want to interpret the vision of the locusts, we need to bear in mind the significance behind these descriptions. More than what they look like, its their power and purpose that is, I think, the point John is trying to communicate.

In verse 11, John gives us the name of the king of the locusts, the one who is the angel of the abyss: Abaddon in Hebrew, Apolluon (or, more popularly in English, Apollyon) in Greek. We see the term Abaddon used in the Old Testament, particularly in Psalm 88:12, to refer to the realm of the dead, a place of destruction. Similarly, the Greek term apolluôn comes from a verb that carries the meaning “to destroy.” So both words can be translated “the destroyer.” The king of the locust swarm is the destroyer. This would certainly be a fitting name for Satan, and it would also fit any leader who has, with demonic relish, brought suffering and destruction upon God’s people. It’s interesting to note that the angel that kills the Egyptian first born children in Exodus 12:23 is called “the destroyer.” Yet another link to the Exodus plagues. This is also significant because the Hebrew children were protected by the lamb’s blood smeared on their lintels. Just as God’s people were protected from the destroyer by lamb’s blood in Exodus, so here, God’s people, those who have been sealed, are protected from Apollyon’s forces, by the blood of the Lamb.

Someone in the group wondered how anyone witnessing these overtly supernatural, even demonic, things wouldn’t repent and turn to Christ. In our discussion, we observed how our culture tends to deal with the supernatural. Most people seem to either deny its existence, or they make entertainment out of it. Books, TV shows, and movies about zombies, vampires, ghosts, and even the very stuff of Revelation. It has often been observed that Satan is equally happy for people to think him a fable, or make a joke out of him. It seems to me, as our world appears to fall apart around us, people are becoming more aware that there’s more to life than the physical. However, without the security of salvation in Christ, the possibility of the supernatural scares them, so they try to protect themselves either by denial, or by packaging it in the form of stories, books, TV shows, and movies, where they can control the narrative, and explore the supernatural from a “safe distance.” One day, however, the truth of the spiritual battle raging around us will become all too apparent. That day when every knee will bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

So what is this fifth trumpet all about? It’s part of a crescendo of judgments from God against unbelievers, of which we all would be a part if not for the grace of God by which He saved and sealed a people for Himself. This judgment involves the torment and affliction of unbelievers by demonic forces. It’s not a long-lasting judgment, so this is not the final judgment, but part of the judgments building up to it. The purpose of this judgment seems to be recompense for the afflictions poured out by the world upon the church. It also fits into a progression of judgments that starts with the destruction of crops, then the destruction of sea creatures, then the poisoning of the water supply, followed by the removal of light, and now affliction. In the following woes we will see death come to a portion of mankind, and then, finally, the Lord’s return.

The fact that there is this crescendo seems to indicate a temporal progression to the visions. I’ve said time and again that we can’t fix a literal sequence of events to what we see in Revelation; the most we can say is that this is the order in which John had his visions. However, it’s not out of the question that there is some kind of order to the temporal events here, especially if this is a gradual worsening of judgments leading up to the final outpouring of God’s wrath. Much of what we’ve seen so far could relate to persecutions and cataclysms that have happened over the past 2,000 years of church history. And one could argue that things have been progressively getting worse, though I think you’d be hard pressed to convince anyone who lived through the persecutions of Domitian, the Islamic conquests of the Middle Ages, or the various persecutions during the Reformation. Perhaps what we’re seeing here is a change in scope. Persecution and judgment will become less and less localized to a particular country, or countries, and become more global. Just a thought to tuck away as we continue our study.

Finally, verse 12 is a transitional verse, reminding us that this is only the first of three woes–there are yet two to come. Again, while I caution us about putting too much weight on a specific temporal sequence, the suggestion here is that there is a progression to these visions. Exactly how that plays out remains to be seen…

Next week will be our last study until sometime in January. I don’t think we’ll get through the sixth trumpet in one week, so it’s possible we’ll hold off on that until we return to our Sunday School class after New Year. Which means this might be the last Study Notes for a little while. If so, see you when we return!

Flash Fiction Friday

Last week I wrote a 160-word piece of flash fiction for Flash! Friday, and it was selected as “First Runner Up”! (That is, it didn’t win, but it nearly won.) Call me an under-achiever, but a near-win is great in my book. This is the best I’ve done so far in the Flash! Friday challenges, so I thought I’d share the story with you, my blog readers.

The challenge was to write a piece of flash fiction of 150 words, with a 10-word leeway either side, based on the novel GONE WITH THE WIND. They gave a range of GONE WITH THE WIND-related prompts from which we were to choose two to incorporate into our stories.

I used the prompts: “a pair of mischief-making twins” and “the American South during the Civil War.” Here’s my story:


We approach the barn. Sam and Wiley take positions behind trees, and I tread cat-like up to the open window.

Billy–remember that time we snuck up on Laurie Atkins? She was singin’ away in the bathroom, an’ she’d left the window open a crack. Not enough to see nothin’ we shouldn’t’ve, but enough to drop a field mouse in. Her scream near woke the dead!

I pull my rifle up to the window frame, quiet as can be, and get sights on the captain.

An’ remember when you was seeing Rosie McNeil, an’ I switched places with you that one night so I’d get to taste a girl’s kiss? She never knew it weren’t you. No-one could tell us apart.

I close my eyes.

Then you had to move to New York. Go to college. Marry a Yankee. Become a Yankee. Why, Billy?

A tear strokes my cheek as I squeeze the trigger.

Why, Billy?

Part of me dies.

FYI: Here’s the original contest article, and here’s the results article (includes the judges’ comments).

Who Review: The Zygon Inversion

DoctorWho_TheZygonInversionZygon-Clara’s attempts to blow up the aircraft carrying The Doctor and Osgood are temporarily foiled when the real Clara wakes up in her Zygon pod. She manages to buy time for The Doctor and Osgood to parachute out before Zygon-Clara’s missile finds its target. Zygon-Clara, who, it turns out, is the commander of the rebel Zygons, resumes her quest to end the ceasefire and instigate war between the Zygons and humans. But now she has an ace up her sleeve. With the realization that there’s a two-way link between her and real Clara, she can mine Clara’s memories to find the location of the Osgood box, and transmit the signal that will put an end to the peace…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen the episode. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

The second part of this season’s two-part Zygon story started with the kind of cliffhanger you know can’t be all that it seems. After all, if the Doctor gets blown up, that’s the end of the show. Surely the Doctor must survive, so the excitement is in seeing how he survives. And this time it’s a close call with a parachute jump from the plane. Of course, the Doctor has a Union Jack parachute–a James Bond reference, perhaps? (See the end of the pre-titles sequence in “The Spy Who Loved Me.”)

The crux of this episode is the Osgood box, and negotiating peace with the rebel Zygons. Of course Kate Stewart survived her Zygon attack by shooting her assailant with “five rounds, rapid”–a reference to one of the Brigadier’s famous lines from the 1971 story, “The Daemons.” Kate is on hand to represent the human race when it comes to peace talks, though Kate is far more willing to destroy the Zygons than the Doctor would prefer.

The Doctor’s impassioned speech to the Zygon commander, recalling “The Day of the Doctor,” and the terrible decision he almost made (and actually did make before he went back an un-made it… wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey…). Capaldi is on form, pleading for the sake of both humans and Zygons, for thoughtfulness. What would a Zygon victory look like? What would a world populated with only Zygons be like? Who would make music? Who would make the instruments to play? And how would the Zygons protect themselves against the next rebellion? And the next? And the next? “Break the cycle!” he implores. Which they do. The Zygon commander stands down, and the Doctor causes everyone to forget about the rebellion. Everyone except the Zygon commander. He wants her to remember, so she won’t let it happen again. And, in what I see as a gesture of her best intentions, she takes the form of Osgood–so there are two Osgoods to keep the peace once more.

This was a good story, though it doesn’t leave much room to bring back the Zygons–at least not on Earth. Writing, acting, effects–all top-notch as usual. The Doctor’s speech does make some good points about the futility of war, and how often war is undertaken with no thought to what life will be like after. However, even though I hate war, I have to admit that while I wish it was that simple, it isn’t always. Sometimes, war is necessary to stop obstinate, evil people (e.g., Hitler), and in what is (from a Christian worldview) a fallen world, there will always be a need to use force from time to time. But the Doctor’s point of view is well-taken.

I think we’re coming up on the end of Clara’s time. If you recall, at the end, Clara says to the Doctor (and I’m paraphrasing a little), “You really thought I was dead?” To which he responds, “Worst month of my life.” “Month?” says Clara. “More like five minutes”–or something like that. Then, in the trailer for next week’s story, we see this Morpheus machine that can let people go a whole month without sleep…

So, what did you think?

Sunday School Notes: Revelation 9:3-6

3 And from the smoke came locusts to the earth, and power [or authority] was given to them like scorpions of the earth have power. 4 And it was told to them such that they shall not harm the grass of the earth nor every green plant nor every tree, except the men who do not have the seal of God upon the forehead. 5 And it was given to them such that they should not kill them, but in order that they shall be tormented for five months, and their torment [shall be] as the torment of a scorpion when it stings a man. 6 And in those days men shall seek death and they shall surely not find it, and they shall desire to die, but death flees from them.

We picked up from last time talking about the fifth trumpet. As I mentioned then, there are two parts to the discussion of this trumpet in Revelation 9. The first part (verses 1-6) talks about the calamity brought about by the trumpet, whereas the second part (verses 7-12) focuses on the locusts themselves, what they look like and who they serve.

As we discussed last time, the smoke from whence the locusts come is representative of judgment (see, for example, Sodom and Gomorrah). If the smoke is coming from the abyss, the implication seems to be that the abyss is either under judgment, or has undergone judgment already. If the latter, why would there be anything coming out? Of course, we should remind ourselves that this is a vision, so what John sees doesn’t have to correspond to actual time, and, indeed, may by symbolic of a larger reality. It’s equally possible that the smoke from the abyss is simply there to indicate to us that this abyss is not a good place–indeed, it is under God’s wrath. Hence, anything coming from the abyss can’t be good.

John sees locusts coming out from the smoke that rises up from the abyss. Again, the association of smoke with these locusts indicates the locusts are bad, even demonic–a fact that will be confirmed as we read on. The most obvious Old Testament parallel to this vision is Exodus 10:12ff, where the Lord sends a plague of locusts upon Egypt. We’ve already said more than once how much the Exodus plagues lie behind these visions, and that is clearly deliberate. Just as God judged the Egyptians for their godlessness and disobedience, so God will one day judge the earth.

But this isn’t a simple transfer of imagery from Exodus to Revelation. The Revelation locusts have their own agenda. In Exodus, the locusts savaged the greenery, leaving no plants or crops untouched. Here, the locusts are instructed to leave the greenery, and only harm people, specifically, those who don’t have the seal of God on their foreheads. One might object that, after the previous visions there isn’t much greenery left for the locusts to devour anyway, so why give the order to leave the greenery? In response, I would offer two suggestions. First, this objection assumes a chronological order to these visions which is not indicated in the text. For all we know, this vision takes place chronologically at the same time as the previous events, or even before. Second, John wants to draw our focus to the locusts’ activity. They are behaving in a manner contrary to what we might expect of locusts. Their interest is not in the fields and plants, but in people. Locusts don’t normally attack people, so the fact these locusts are sent to attack people should grab our attention. They might swarm like locusts, but they attack like scorpions.

Notice, too, that they don’t attack the sealed. We recall back in 7:4, John listed those who had been sealed in twelve groups of twelve thousand, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel. As we discussed back then, this is a picture of the church, the fulfillment (not replacement) of Israel, which is made up of people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation–including Israel. Indeed, if the 144,000 that were sealed were literally Israel, and only Israel, then only Israel would be protected from the locusts, and there would be believers among those crying out for death, tormented by the stings, which seems to contradict God’s promises to His church in chapters 2 and 3. We’ll discuss the torment of the stings in a moment, and hopefully that will clarify why this kind of torment would be impossible for any of God’s people.

John says the torment inflicted by the locusts lasts for five months. Is this another symbolic number? Whenever John gives a specific quantity, we can usually understand that number to have a deeper significance. I’m no entomologist, but it seems five months is about the life cycle of a locust. It’s also about the length of time it takes for crops to grow before being harvested. Traditionally, locusts don’t swarm for their entire five month lives, but they make occasional strikes. So a five month locust attack would be very severe. The fact that these locusts would know nothing else in their lives apart from attacking people indicates that these locusts were created for this purpose. All this gives us a picture of a relatively brief, but intense and deliberate, period of violence against a third of mankind.

The torment of the locusts is, John says, like a scorpion’s sting. The sting of a scorpion is not usually lethal, but those who have had the misfortune to encounter a scorpion’s tail will tell you it is excruciatingly painful. At first we might think that this is the torment: pain like a scorpion’s sting–especially since the locusts are told not to kill. However, John says the torment is like a scorpion’s sting. When we see that “like” we must ask ourselves: in what way? Certainly we shouldn’t dismiss the physical pain, but both the immediate context and other places in Revelation seem to point to something much deeper. First, verse 6 says that those stung will seek death and not find it. Again, it’s very possible that such intense pain could lead to suicidal thoughts, but most people who suffer a scorpion sting don’t react this way. So there is a sense of incredible mental and psychological anguish associated with this sting. We should also consider later in Revelation, where the word “torment” seems to be used to describe similar mental, psychological, and spiritual pain:

  • 11:10: the two witnesses bring a torment upon the earth-dwellers that is evidently not physical.
  • 14:10-11: Those experiencing God’s wrath are tormented with fire and sulfur, and the smoke of that torment is eternal. This could be describing a physical torment, but the eternal nature of it suggests something more profound.
  • 18:7-10: At the fall of Babylon, her torment is described as being as great as her wealth. The “torment and mourning” here seems to point to a sense of psychological anguish, despair, and ruin.

One third of humanity will be so overcome with pain–maybe physical, certainly psychological and spiritual–that they will lose hope and any sense of self-worth. They don’t repent. They don’t seek Christ. Like Judas, their utter devastation leads them to suicide. But unlike Judas, death wants nothing to do with them. They must continue to live in anguish. This is part of their judgment. The fact that only one third of humanity go through this reminds us that this is not the final judgment, but part of a crescendo of judgments leading up to the final condemnation of sinful, rebellious mankind, and the spiritual forces behind mankind’s rebellion.

As for the sealed, they don’t suffer this anguish. They have hope, as promised them in the fifth seal. Whatever may happen to them physically, they are secure in Christ, covered by the blood of the Lamb. Christ has already paid the penalty for their sin, so they stand blameless before God. They don’t seek death because to live is Christ–even under the most dire of circumstances. But should death find them, they don’t run from it because to die is gain.

Next time we’ll at least start looking at these locusts in a bit more detail (9:7ff).

Book Review: THE EX by Alafair Burke

Olivia Randall is a top New York defense attorney who is drawn to defend a man accused of a triple homicide. But this is no ordinary case. The accused, Jack Harris, is considered a hero, whose wife was one of a number of people gunned down in a seemingly random act of violence. The killer escaped justice, despite Jack’s best efforts to have him put away. And now the killer’s father is among the three dead in what the prosecutors believe to be an act of revenge. To add another twist, Jack and Olivia were engaged twenty years previously, and both parties have unresolved issues. Can Olivia provide an objective defense, or are her feelings clouding her judgment? And is mild-mannered Jack a murderer, or the victim of an elaborate set-up?

Note: This review is of an Advanced Reader’s Edition I received at Bouchercon. I met the author and she signed my book, but I wasn’t asked to review it–indeed, there were no conditions attached to my receipt of this book.

This is the first Alafair Burke novel I have read, despite the fact Janet Reid has been promoting her books for years, and I usually enjoy the books Janet pushes. It was certainly a change of pace from the books I’ve been reading lately. The blurb on the back calls it a “novel of suspense,” and I suppose it is in that Alafair keeps you guessing all along as to the innocence or guilt of Jack Harris. But it is very much a legal suspense novel, along the line of some of the John Grisham I’ve read, only better. Especially the last Grisham novel I tried–way too much of a social/political agenda. Alafair avoids all that and simply buckles down and tells the story. And she tells it well.

Alafair’s characters have depth, and are not easily put into “good guy” or “bad guy” categories. Olivia is haunted by feelings of guilt over the way she treated Jack when they were together, and is not above using less-than-ethical methods to get what she needs for her case. Jack seems like the humble hero, the quiet victim, but along the way we get hints of a darker side to his character that gives even his most loyal friends pause. There are prostitutes, drug addicts, and others riding the hard edges of life that play into the story, all of whom have their own stories. I appreciated Alafair’s eye (and ear) for people, treating them more than just pawns in her narrative, but as characters with lives.

The story itself was engrossing. There are large sections devoted to backstory, which is normally not a good thing. However, a lot of what goes on in THE EX is predicated on that backstory, so it needs to come out somehow. Alafair manages to make it part of the narrative without losing the reader’s attention, and without making the story drag. While there are no fight scenes, car chases, gun battles, or violent struggles to the death, there are plenty of twists and turns to keep the reader engaged.

There are no sex scenes, some profanity, and not really any violence aside from the murders, and even there Alafair doesn’t go into any graphic descriptions. I would comfortably rate it a PG-15, and give it four Goodreads stars. To sum up, if you’re looking for a good detective story–especially one with a strong legal angle–then THE EX is for you.

THE EX is scheduled for release in January, 2016.

Who Review: The Zygon Invasion

DoctorWho_TheZygonInvasionAfter the peace treaty forged in “The Day of the Doctor” (the 50th Anniversary Special), the Zygons were allowed to live on Earth, taking on human form, and co-existing with the humans. But after a while, a faction of Zygons became dissatisfied with this arrangement. It wasn’t enough to co-exist; they wanted to take over. And now the time has come for that plan to play out, starting with the capture of the embodiment of that peace itself: Osgood. And with Zygons located all over the planet, is there anywhere safe? Does UNIT have the resources to fight? And does the Doctor stand to lose everything…?

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen the episode. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

Back to a more traditional two-parter with a cliffhanger. Like many other fans, I was pleased to see Osgood return. Bringing characters back from the dead is always risky, given the often lame explanations for why they didn’t die, or how they “recovered.” This one worked, since she was a Zygon double. But not simply a double: a hybrid. I had to chuckle at the conversation she had with the Doctor about the fact he used to wear question marks on his shirts. This costume choice has long been a sore point among fans, since it took the underlying mysterious element of his character and shoved it in your face. So, it wasn’t a complete surprise it was handled with humor and cheek.

Sonic sunglasses sonic sunglasses sonic sunglasses… grumble grumble… okay–I’ve got that out of my system. :)

The story itself–at least so far–was good, and makes an important point about trust. As the Doctor pointed out, while Zygons had gone rogue, it was a faction, not the whole. Granted, a faction of rogue Zygons can do a lot of harm, but the response needs to be measured to protect the innocent as much as possible. I’m sure there was an intentional parallel to our real-life situation, where often a response to a threat is necessary, but it’s too easy to go in with all guns blazing, painting an entire people group with the same brush for the sake of a “simple” solution.

I don’t know whether it was the story, or the direction, but it felt a bit like watching an episode of “The X-Files.” Again, not necessarily a complaint, but maybe more an observation on the style of story-telling this production team seems to enjoy.

Lastly, I was a bit uncomfortable with the Doctor’s acceptance of the “President of the World” title, and his using that title to procure an aircraft, just because he likes to “ponce around” in planes. The whole guitar/rock star bit is wearing thin for me. Yes, the Doctor has a fun, playful, even childish side to him. And maybe this kind of behavior can fit with the Doctor. I can’t say I like it though. I’m used to a bit more humility from the Time Lord (aside from the occasional, “Don’t kill me, I’m a genius!” type of comment).

But all in all, another good episode, I think. Performances, direction, effects, writing, all top-notch. Hopefully the next part will be at least as good!

What did you think?

Happy Reformation Day!

October 31, 1517–a date often overlooked on our calendars, but it’s probably one of the most important dates in Western history. Certainly one of the most important dates in church history. It was on this day 498 years ago, that an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther posted a list of 95 points for debate and discussion on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. He was concerned over the practice of selling indulgences–time out of purgatory and, hence, a speedier passage to heaven when one dies–by church officials. St. Peter’s Basilica was under construction at the time, and the sale of indulgences was one centuries-old fund-raising method employed by the church. Confident that the Pope wouldn’t approve such things, Luther set forth his arguments against it.

But Luther was wrong about the Pope, and he soon found himself fighting the church over the principle that salvation can’t be bought and sold–it is the free gift of God. As Paul spells out in Ephesians 2:8-9, we are saved by grace alone, and not by works or anything that we think might merits God’s favor (e.g., giving money to a church building project).

What became known as the Protestant Reformation took hold across Europe. It upset the monarchy in England, which found itself vacillating between these “new” ideas and the traditions of the Pope and the “Roman” church. Elizabeth I’s “settlement” that outlawed all expressions of Protestantism save for the Church of England, her own church, found many Protestants fleeing for the New World. There, they not only established churches, but they founded colleges, and formed governments, crafting the constitutions that guided them, and have guided them ever since.

So, even if you’re one of the many who’ll be dressing up to celebrate some other festival today, spare a thought for Luther, and a day in history that shouldn’t be forgotten.