Sep 7, 2010

Religious Horror? Q & A with Jonathan Weyer

When I was about five years old, my brothers were watching "Creature Feature" on Saturday afternoon TV. I made the mistake of joining them. The film was The Beast With Five Fingers, starring Peter Lorre. A pianist dies, and his dismembered hand goes around murdering people. It traumatized me. I wouldn't go to the bathroom in a public loo for years. I was afraid when my parents turned out the lights. That hand was going to come get me.

I avoided horror movies ever since. Never saw Friday the 13th, Halloween, Blair Witch, not even Scream, a horror parody. The scariest film I ever saw was Brazil, because the naturalistic horror seemed in the realm of possibility.

I heard that Clive Barker, author of the Hellraiser novels, was religious. So was Bram Stoker: his Dracula was defeated by the Cross for a reason. But I watched 15 minutes of True Blood and thought, "meh."

So I was curious when I heard about author/pastor Jonathan Weyer's upcoming horror novel, The Faithful.  Actually I first saw his cover art on twitter and thought it looked cool.  We chatted in 140 characters or less, then he sent me a copy of the book.

Full disclosure:I haven't read it yet, and it may take months before it makes its way up my pile of books. But I was intrigued by what he was doing. Here's a blurb from his website:

Adian Schaeffer is a young pastor at a crossroads.  Conflicted by the hypocrisy of the church, he feels alone and depressed.  His only companion is his dog, Bishop.  When he begins to doubt his faith, he knows he is entering a spiritual battleground and starts searching for answers. Then he learns his ex-fiancée is murdered in a possibly demonic ritual, and he's a prime suspect; he's catapulted into a deeper fight.  Tormented by supernatural entities, Aidan becomes a medium that will hold the key to solving this murder mystery.

Did I mention that Jonathan is a pastor? We did a Q & A (not via twitter)

Q: So you are a pastor. And you wrote a religious horror novel.  Sundays in your world must be interesting.  Have you gotten flak for writing horror? (from religious people) Or flak from horror fans for being religious?

A. So far, everyone has been great. I think the religious folks have been skeptical about the label “horror.” I usually tell them there are three levels of horror:  the unsettling, the gross out, and torture porn. I would put The Faithful in the first category, but a gross out can be used as well. Torture Porn is out of bounds because it's just horrible for so many reasons. Stephen King said that at its heart, horror has morality that would make a puritan preacher smile. Torture Porn doesn't have that worldview, its violence for violence's sake. Once I explain that, religious folks get it for the most part. I'm sure that once the book is released, there might be more controversy on both sides of the fence. We shall see.

Q. How do you incorporate your love of the supernatural with your deep religious faith?

A. The Bible and the Nicene Creed tells that God is the creator of the seen and the unseen. I find it odd when Christians become too naturalistic in their faith. I don't find the ideas incompatible at all. Are there some tensions in being a pastor and writing a ghost story? Sure, but not the ones you would think. Those lines from the Creed have always struck me and I love stories that try to explore that tension between the seen and the unseen.

Q. Where do you get story ideas for your books?

A: Ha, too many to name! The chief place would be Coast to Coast AM. It's show on in the middle of the night that talks about all kinds of paranormal things like ghosts, aliens, etc. I listen to it when I can't sleep or I'm going on a long trip. Plus, growing up, I wasn't allowed to watch horror movies. I scared myself by reading real ghost stories, stuff about Bigfoot and the scariest of all, the Mothman sightings in West Virginia. Oh, and the Weird America books are invaluable!

Q: Were you always interested in both writing and pastoring? You started as a Presbyterian pastor, then moved to campus ministry. Were you writing all the time?

A. I was. In fact, in seminary (don't tell my professors) I would write little notes to myself that turned in my first novel (not The Faithful). In fact, my preaching professor in seminary told me he loved my writing, but that it would always make it hard for me to preach. I think the reason is because there two different things are going on, and making the switch is pretty difficult. As I kept writing after seminary, I found I loved it more than preaching. When I realized that, I knew I should probably step out of the pulpit and concentrate on start writing. I'm still ordained and ministering to college students. I'm just not preaching anymore.

Q: Tell us about the Thomas Society. That sounds fascinating.

A. The Thomas Society is the name of the student group I founded at Ohio State. It's a group dedicated to providing a third place where anyone, Christian or non-Christian can ask any question in a safe forum. I have an amazing group of Christian students who lead the group. Last year, half of our group consisted of Christians and half consisted of atheists. The discussion is often very intense, but intelligent. Name calling and simplistic arguments aren't allowed.

Q: Did your involvement with atheists and the Thomas Society influence this book?

Not at all in the beginning. When I first came up with the idea, I hadn't even started campus ministry, much less hanging out with atheists. The whole thing started because I wanted to write a ghost story. As things progressed, I realize how much Aidan, the main character, really struggled with his faith. That started to filter into the story, especially as I began work at Ohio State. The biggest influence on the book came in the rewrite and editing process. It happened at the same time I was thinking through what I wanted The Thomas Society to about: being an open place for everyone to ask their questions about Christianity. There is no doubt each influenced the other.

Q: Religious people can form ideas of what atheists and agnostics are like. Tell me what you've observed. How do the atheists and agnostics you talk to, deal with the issue of Evil? Or of the supernatural? 

A. I'm the only Christian minister on the speaker's bureau for the Secular Student Alliance, an International group for atheist college students. This past summer, I took part in a panel discussion at their national conference in Columbus. I actually spoke there last summer as well. When I walked into the room, I got hugs from about ten atheists. How often does a preacher get hugged at an atheist conference? I loved it. I speak to a lot of their student groups. In fact, a group in Seattle is talking about bringing me out in November.
      As for the issue of Evil, there really is no consensus among atheists about that question. In fact, that's the biggest misunderstanding religious people have atheists, that is, we think they are this monolithic group. They aren't. Opinions on evil range from its just a social construct to those who would believe that there really is evil, but it's merely a leftover of an outdated evolutionary necessity.
     As for the supernatural, they obviously think all of it's crap, God, ghosts, the devil, unicorns, etc. They think it all belongs in the same category of stories that just aren't true.

Look at that cherubic face! Hard to imagine him brewing horror up in that noggin.  If you like supernatural horror, check out  The Faithful.  It comes out on October 1. Just in time for a Halloween. Mwah ha ha!

Find out more about Jonathan Weyer and The Faithful at his website.
You can also follow him on twitter.

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