As most of you know, I’m an author of ten novels (a mixture of mystery, fantasy, and thriller…all with a dash of the paranormal). Almost all of them (except for my Ajax Clean series) have paranormal elements revolving around folklore, myth, and various magico-religious groups. I think my Ezekiel Crane books have a little bit of all that, actually. But I’m also a Christian. Not only am I a Christian, but I’m Southern Baptist…one of the big fundamentalist denominations of the Christian faith. And I’m a Southern Baptist because, having studied all the various other doctrines of the other denominations, I find that the Southern Baptists, for the most part, strive to adhere to a proper understanding of Scripture to the best of their ability (which admittedly, is often limited…but they try).
So, I’ve been asked by a number of readers on more than one occasion, if I’m such a devoted Christian and adherent to Scripture (I believe the Bible is both inerrant and infallible, not to mention God-inspired), how can I write about so many pagan religions and ideologies? More, how can I write them in such a benevolent light? I mean, after all, isn’t voodoo evil? Isn’t Santeria, Palo Mayombe, and Appalachian folk magic (not to mention hoodoo) evil? By writing about these things, am I not supporting them? Am I not encouraging others to delve into them? Am I not hurting my Christian witness by not condemning them?
The answer to those questions is: I don’t rightly know. I’ve had these questions myself. My conscience feels clean, but if so many people are concerned about it, then I ask myself, how could I not feel bad about it? How could I not be worried about it? Of course, I know the answer to this question, but honestly…it’s between God and me. However, I thought maybe by sharing some things from my point of view and things that happened to me, I might be able to set some minds at ease about the themes so common in my stories. So here goes.
Fewer of you may know about my ‘day job’. By night, I’m a writer of fun, paranormal mysteries and thrillers. But by day (and often at night as well), I’m a forensic death investigator in a medical examiner’s office in Florida. Because of that, I come across a lot of strange cases and strange behavior at scenes that I need to make sense of.
A few years ago, I had one such a case (it’s a matter of public record, so I can talk about it…although I’m going to leave a LOT of details out in respect for the deceased and her family). I was called to the beach where a dead woman had been found behind some dunes. I go to the scene to investigate and find her. She’d been dead a day or two. Topless. And kneeling in a prostrate (praying) position in the sand.
As we began digging into the circumstances leading up to her death, we discover that the woman practices Santeria, a religion that originated in the Congo and was brought over to Cuba by slaves. It evolved over time into what we know today.
We discovered that the woman had recently been ‘cursed’ by her Santero (priest) with a Death Curse. According to her family, she became distraught about this curse. To her, it was very, very real. She did whatever she could to escape the curse, but nothing worked. So, one night, she went to the beach with some alcohol and a few sleeping pills. We believe she started praying…possibly praying for the Orisha (the gods of Santeria) to forgive her. Then, she drank the alcohol and took the pills and died. In many ways, the Death Curse came true. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I could go on, but I really don’t feel comfortable giving details about many people’s deaths other than to touch on a couple of others briefly to further illustrate the point I want to make.
Recently, there was another case. Another overdose. The woman was a high priestess of Santeria, who died in her house. Law enforcement found her in her bedroom. But honestly, because of the religious artifacts, idols and such, and ritualistic paraphernalia, the officers on scene were naturally spooked. To them, and their Western sensibilities, such tableaus were things of evil and instinctively wanted to avoid the place. But in a death investigation, it’s essential to look at things closely. Spend time at the crime scene. Probe. All the things these officers didn’t want to do because of their lack of knowledge into the religion. [I’d like to point out that they ended up doing a fantastic job despite their misgivings, by the way…and with the proper respect.]
But if you think that the weird stuff only applies to Kongonese religions such as voodoo and Santeria, think again. I was at another death scene once. The family had called their Christian pastor to come to minister to them. As we were taking her remains out of the house, the pastor stopped me to ask if he and the family could pray over her. Being sensitive to all religious beliefs, I said yes, but was sure to keep her covered and protected from evidence contamination (even though the death was believed to be a natural at the time). The family gathered around the stretcher in a circle and the preacher began to pray. At first, it was so very normal. Then, the preacher’s words began to change. I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. The family also began speaking in a language I was unfamiliar with. Then, I realized, they were doing what is called ‘speaking in tongues’ (something we Baptists aren’t exactly accustomed to. lol). The next thing I know, the pastor begins to chant, “Arise! Arise! Arise!” The family members follow suit, “Arise!” they chant. “Arise!”
Holy smokes! I thought. They’re trying to raise this woman from the dead! I stand there, watching. Stiff as a board. Uncertain of what to do. I’m thinking: if this woman sits up, there’s going to be a Kent-shaped hole in the door as I run out it. But after several minutes of this, nothing happens and the family allows me to take her to my office.
Well, not to that family. And the weird scary artifacts in the Santeria priestess’s house? They’re not scary to her or her loved ones. And therein lies my fascination with something called ‘Comparative Religions’, the study of various religions in light of their similarities and differences for a better understanding of people.
In death investigations, I believe the understanding of people’s religious views are crucial to serve them and their family’s better. It is our job to serve the deceased’s best interests (that’s primary) and see that justice is done for them when necessary. But on a secondary basis, we’re there to give closure to their loved ones and family. And that means understanding their religious beliefs. After all, religious beliefs are primarily focused on ‘what happens to us when we die’. It doesn’t matter whether I agree with them or not. What’s important is that I try to understand them and accommodate them as best I can. Those of the Jewish and Muslim faith don’t believe in autopsies. On cases where it’s possible not to perform them, we will do what we can to accommodate their desires. Muslims need to sit with their loved ones after they die until they can be buried the very next day. This one is a little trickier for our office because of security concerns. But where we are able to meet the family’s religious wishes, we strive to do just that.
But how can we do that if we don’t know about the religion? How can we serve the community in the melting pot of America if we heap scorn on religions that are strange to us? How can we investigate deaths and get justice for the dead if we’re afraid to enter their homes because of what looks like demonic paraphernalia sitting around inside?
That’s been my mission in the last few years. To study the most obscure religions out there (focusing on those I will most likely run into living in Florida). That’s where my interest in voodoo, Santeria, and Palo Mayombe has come from.
It’s also why I put these religions in my books. It’s not because I believe in them. It’s not because I support them or even condone them. As a Christian, I find their doctrines incorrect and contrary to the Truth of Christ. But you know what? I also find them beautiful. I find them colorful and flamboyant and intriguing. I find them worthy of understanding and compassion and love.
As a Christian, who strives to live his life by the Great Commission (Go unto all the world, preaching the good news of Christ), I find it essential to understand these religions better so I can talk to people where we have common ground. So I can love on people of these religions without judgment or ridicule. So I won’t automatically have a knee-jerk reaction of pointing a finger and shouting, “Evil doer!” Yes, on the surface (thanks to the horrible way in which these religions have been depicted through Hollywood on TV shows and movies (most of it very, very untrue or misleading, by the way)), we see voodoo as just another offshoot of Satanism. Of devil worship. And that, to most Christians, is reprehensible. But it’s important to understand that the people practicing and believing these things are NOT reprehensible. And they’re not any more evil than all humans are. They just have a different (and yes, incorrect, according to Scripture) understanding of the nature of the cosmos.
It’s not our job to judge these people. It’s our job to love them. God will sort out the rest.
So, this is why an author of strong Christian conviction writes so many stories depicting Appalachian hoodoo, voodoo, and Santeria in often positive light. It’s not done to condone, but to teach. To help people to understand. To expose people to various points of view in hopes of better understanding our neighbors, friends, and co-workers.
But if you think that my stories depict these religions as equal to the Christian faith, you’re not reading deep enough. In all my stories, there is a distinct struggle between the religion that rides front and center in the story…the one that is loudest and most boisterous…and the subtler, quieter Creator of all things that lurks out of view off the story’s pages. The struggle of the flamboyant gods of false religions and the reserved and calm God of all creation. In the end, in all my stories, the second option always wins.