Not Ashamed Of The Gospel


Love of Divena coverIt’s getting harder in western society, I think, to say we’re not ashamed of the gospel. Well, we can say we’re not ashamed of the gospel–free speech, and all. But taking a stand because of the gospel, especially on the hot bed issues of our day, is becoming risky. Hence, Christians are re-thinking whether or not they should let their Christianity be known.

For example, I or my beliefs have been belittled or vilified on my own Facebook page by family and friends because of certain positions I’ve taken.

Dovetail this with what some Christian writers have been saying: Christian fiction is poor art in part because it aggressively preaches.

The accusations about Christian fiction are anything but new. Often people have decried the loss of Christian influence in the arts. Once Christians dominated painting and literature. So what happened, they ask.

Well, what did not happen was a switch from not preachy to preachy. Milton, John Donne, George Herbert, John Bunyan, and a great list of other writers led the way in literature by writing about their faith or incorporating it in their works in very clear and obvious ways. They were not ashamed of the gospel.

The real difference between then and now, however, is in execution. Too many writers add on “faith elements” as an after thought or to fulfill a necessity for their publisher. Some, on the other hand, slather in gospel references in the hopes of . . . well, preaching to the lost.

Other writers would just as soon see the divide between secular and sacred erased–but the implication is that a story well told, without any “faith elements” is sacred by virtue of the fact that it is artistic.

I wonder if this isn’t the writer’s way of being ashamed of the gospel. If a story is well told and the gospel is front and center, why does that story automatically get treated as if it is second rate?

Well, some may say, those stories are too unambiguous. They don’t make people think, they give too many answers? Really?

Recently I’ve been discussing salvation in regards to “the unreached peoples” of the world, and those living in India have been mentioned. At once I think of Kay Marshall Strom’s series Blessings in India: The Faith of Ashish, The Hope of Shridula, The Love of Divena.

India 1990. In the final book of the Blessings of India series, Shridula, old and stooped at fifty-nine, makes her painful way to pay homage to the elephant god Ganesh, lord of success and destroyer of evils and obstacles. “Why are we Hindus instead of Christians?” her seventeen-year-old granddaughter Divena asked.

“Because we are Indian,” said Shridula.

So begins a spiritual journey for Divena as she struggles against an entire culture to proclaim a faith close to her heart while rocking the world of two families. (backcover copy quoted from Amazon)

Yes, those are stories about God at work in one of those unreached parts of the world. No easy answers, but no hiding God, either. No shame of the gospel.

Honestly, I don’t know why, in light of the vast number of people who don’t know Jesus Christ as Savior, all Christian writers don’t make it a mission to bring faith to bear in a discernible way in our writing, in our stories.

No, I don’t think every story needs to be a salvation message. Some can show a believer coping with anorexia as Running Lean by Diana Sharple does. Others like Firstborn by Lorie Ann Grover can address gender issues. Or how about the Safe Lands series by Jill Williamson that shows a character’s struggle with lust and addiction?

God can show up in dramatic ways or daily, gradually, through His people. He can show up through types and symbols and allegory, or He can be present, identified from start to finish as the Creator, Sustainer, and Savior of the world. The how isn’t the issue, I don’t think.

But a dying world needs to hear Truth, and I don’t think it’s time for Christian writers to shrink back, ashamed of the gospel.

The Christian View Of Culture: The Secular/Sacred Divide


    Nothing for the Christian is essentially secular. It can only be secularized by leaving God out of it or by engaging in that from which God, by his nature, must be excluded.
    - The Real Face of Atheism by Ravi Zacharias (p. 145)

mud_poolI’ve read any number of times that one of the problems in the church and in Christian fiction is a propensity to divide life into camps—secular over there, Christian over here. Often times this line of reasoning comes from someone decrying the term “Christian fiction.”

However, the thought usually goes more along these lines: God created the world and everything in it; therefore, everything has a touch of the divine if we will see it—mountains and mud puddles, priests and prostitutes.

Interestingly, the quote above from evangelist/apologist Ravi Zacharias agrees with the idea that we have constructed an artificial divide. There’s an interesting wording difference between Zacharias’s phrasing and what I’ve read before. Rather than saying all is sacred, he says none is secular. I think that might be significant.

On one hand, those suggesting we do away with the “Christian fiction” distinction say all is sacred. There seems to be a period there. The implication is that all can be enjoyed or utilized by a Christian whether or not God shows up.

In contrast, Mr. Zacharias stipulates that nothing is secular but anything can be secularized by leaving God out

But what does it mean to include God in the picture? Are we supposed to see Jesus in Avatar, for instance? Are we supposed to read Watership Down (Richard Adams) and see some end times message?

Not at all. I think including God means I first see the object or person or piece of writing before me for what or who they are. Jesus, for example, understood exactly who the woman at the well was—a Samaritan, a “seeker,” a divorcee, a sinner in need of a Savior. He didn’t dismiss her as too far gone for God and He didn’t dismiss her as already one of the family of God.

I guess what I’m thinking is this: we don’t need to force God into places.

I remember when I saw the first two Star Wars movies. I started to see Christian parallels and began to wonder if possibly Lucas was using intentional symbolism to convey a Christian message. Maybe he was saying the Force was God. Maybe our hero was a type of Christ.

In reality, I was forcing my worldview onto the movie.

Then where is God in Star Wars? Are they simply “secular,” something I can enjoy apart from my Christianity?

While I can enjoy them, I don’t think it’s necessary for me to do so apart from my Christianity but because of it. As I think on God and His Son, I am filtering my culture through the lens of my Christianity.

For example, I can look at the Force and compare that to God as He has revealed Himself in the Bible—a personal, loving Heavenly Father. While the Jedi knights could say, “May the Force be with you,” they could never say, “May the Force comfort you in your time of grief” or “May the Force hear your prayer” or “May the Force extend its grace and love to you.” God transcends the Force by His nature, by His personhood.

So I can come away from Star Wars entertained but also thankful that I know a personal loving God and do not have to trust to an impersonal, distant Force.

That’s only one example. Other possibilities include a conviction to commit to God … Or a willingness to mentor someone new in the faith … Or a determination to stand against evil regardless of the strength of the opposition.

You get the idea.

Nothing is secular unless I leave God out.

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This article is a reprint of one entitled “The Christian View Of Culture” published February, 2010.

The Place Of Truth In Fiction


Truth in FictionFiction as truth? Almost any novelist will tell you that truth is an important component in storytelling. The setting needs to be believably true, the characters need to be true to their personality and experience, and the story needs to be true to its setup and foreshadowing. And all of it needs to ring true with the reader.

Behind the curtain, though, is a story’s theme, and the truth of the theme seems to be at the heart of understanding the place of truth in fiction. According to R. L. Copple in a recent article at Speculative Faith, there are two primary views of truth in fiction:

One view is that fiction is a teaching tool.

In that understanding, Christian fiction’s primary goal and purpose is to relate Biblical truths (as interpreted by a specific community of faith) in a systematic and accurate fashion. Ultimately, it should convey the Gospel message. The fear is that if it doesn’t do so, it will teach people untruths and lead them away from God, not to Him. Thus, any deviation from their perception of Biblical truth is cause for alarm and condemnation.

The other view is that fiction conveys an emotional experience of Christian themes.

Unlike God, who is infallible, authors are not writing the Bible, nor a systematic theology, but a story about fallible characters who may believe the wrong things, misunderstand God, in short, sin. It is a story depicting theology lived out, and thus like real life, messy. Not every question gets answered. Not all resolutions are in tidy, neatly wrapped packages.

The purpose of this type of Christian fiction is to wrestle with Christian themes in an emotionally engaging manner. To help people encounter and incarnate the truth within themselves. The details are only important in conveying the story arc and theme in an engaging manner.(Emphases in the original.)

“The details are only important in conveying the story arc and theme in an engaging manner.” There’s some truth to this statement. In The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe, for instance, the important details about Aslan dying on a stone table as a substitute for Edmund didn’t need to be true in the sense that a real lion talked and walked or sacrificed himself. Nor did the details have to match up with precision to that which the allegorical sacrifice depicted–Jesus Christ dying on a cross as the substitute for sinful humans.

However, there were details that did need to remain truthful if the story was to be true. The White Witch, for instance, couldn’t win the battle and become the new Aslan. Such an ending could well have been engaging, and there might even have been an engaging theme, perhaps even a truthful one, such as “Looks are deceiving” or “It’s better to obey those in authority than to rebel.”

Nevertheless, such themes do not mitigate the falsehood of evil winning out against good.

Does that mean, then, that fiction is supposed to teach? Well, sure! Fiction is supposed to teach the same way all of life teaches. For the Christian, this is mandated in Scripture:

You shall therefore impress these words of mine on your heart and on your soul; and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall teach them to your sons, talking of them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road and when you lie down and when you rise up. (Deut. 11:18-19)

And when you tell stories.

OK, the text doesn’t add he line about stories, but Jesus modeled the use of stories as a teaching device.

I honestly wonder what people mean when they question the idea that stories aren’t supposed to teach truth. It’s as if “teaching” has somehow become a suspect activity. We don’t want to indoctrinate our children or our readers or our colleagues or our friends.

Teaching is not indoctrination! In fact, the best teaching spurs the learner to think critically, to ask the hard questions, to dig for answers, to mull, cogitate, meditate, debate. The best stories, the truthful stories, ought to do that.

The problem isn’t that some stories teach truth and others let readers experience. Rather, it’s that some stories which teach truth do it badly. Of course, some stories that let readers experience, do that badly, too, because they aren’t truthful stories. The Shack had lots of people praising it because of what they experienced, but in the end, the story was filled with falsehood.

The place of truth in fiction? Right dab in the middle, as far as I’m concerned. Stories by Christians should be all about truth. But they ought to be artful in their expression of it, and yes, they should show truth instead of telling readers what is true.

Why Morality In Fiction, Or You Experience What You Read


The best books take readers to new places

The best books take readers to new places


I know this isn’t a great hook, but I think you should know up front: this post is largely a reprint of an article I wrote for Spec Faith in August, 2011. The subject leads naturally into a look at morality in fiction, and honestly, I didn’t think I could summarize the content adequately. I’ll add a few remarks at the end, but here is the original with slight editorial changes.

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    Stories matter. Any reader can tell you this. We cry because a beloved old yeller dog, which never actually existed, dies. We laugh at the pig’s tail applied to the imaginary greedy Dudley Dursley. We cheer when the fictitious Aslan returns alive.

    Clearly stories affect us in powerful ways. We skip meals and stay awake late at night. We “forget to breathe” and find our muscles coiled tight until our heroine is out of danger.

    Such physical effects indicate that all this pretend is very real. But how can this be?

    At long last, scientists are beginning to take note and study the power of fiction. One of those leading the way is Keith Oatley, professor emeritus in the Department of Human Development and Applied Psychology at the University of Toronto. He and his colleagues devised a way to measure the effects of literature on the human psyche. In summary

    the central assumption Oatley developed to frame their research [is this]: “When people are reading literary fiction, they’re creating in their mind a simulation of experience. It’s a simulation that’s cognitive as well as emotional….” (“Toronto scientists determine that fiction can change personalities” By Natalie Samson, accessed August 12, 2011 – emphasis mine)

    In essence, it seems these scientists are saying we readers have our own little holodecks in our minds, and consequently we mentally experience the stories we read. And that changes us.

    At least that’s the hypothesis.

    black_horseI get that. Growing up, I was a huge fan of the Walter Farley books (The Black Stallion, The Black Stallion Returns, The Black Stallion and Satan, The Black Stallion’s Filly, and many more, my favorite being The Black Stallion Mystery). Somewhere during that reading phase, I decided I wanted a horse. I knew I’d bond with a horse and that I could ride like the wind.

    At that point, however, I’d done nothing with horses except ride an old nag at summer camp where we walked our mounts behind a guide for an hour.

    I never did own a horse, but my confidence around them did not wane, despite my own lack of experience. You see, I didn’t feel inexperienced.

    Years later when I visited a friend who did own a horse and we went riding, the particular mount I was on tried a clever trick to unseat me. My friend was somewhat amazed that I didn’t end up sprawled in the dirt.

    Some time later I did a “rent-a-horse” ride in Colorado. After several return visits, the guide let me take my horse out on my own. Again I had the experience of a horse trying to deposit me on the ground, this one by rearing.

    No problem. After all, I’d experienced much worse from the Black. Oh, wait. No, that wasn’t actually me. That was a character in a book. But it felt like me.

    It felt as if those experiences had become part of my acquired knowledge. Not in a conscious way, to be sure, but as I look back, I find it easy to believe that I wasn’t fearful and didn’t overreact in the real life circumstances because of the simulated experiences of my childhood.

    How many other experiences have I lived through behind the eyes of the characters in books I’ve loved? And how have those changed me?

    Oatley, whose scholarly work Such Stuff As Dreams: The psychology of fiction (Wiley-Blackwell) is now available in North America, and his fellow scientists developed experiments to “examine what Oatley calls the ‘big five personality traits’ – extroversion, emotional stability, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness” (ibid).

    I don’t know about those particulars, but here’s what Oatley’s publisher says:

    Oatley richly illustrates how fiction represents, at its core, a model that readers construct in collaboration with the writer. This waking dream enables us to see ourselves, others, and the everyday world more clearly.

    Yes, fiction matters, with readers and writers collaborating. And the end result is clearer vision.

    Always? Or can fiction lead us to believe something about ourselves and the everyday world that is not true?

- – - – -
And this is where morality comes in. Dr. Zhivago, the movie, was one of the first pieces of fiction that made me aware of the power of a story to affect my moral compass. Here was a story about a man in the midst of political upheaval who loved two different women, each love shown to be beautiful and right. Was it true that a person could love two different people with the same passion? And if so, did loving them both justify sexual involvement with both?

At some point during my reading experience, I also became aware of my tendency to mimic the speech patterns I was reading, if only in my head. Unfortunately, this bent included a variety of cuss words, and at times I found the first word that came to mind in certain situations was one I’d copied from a character in a book.

These experiences and others made the idea of reading as “a waking dream,” as a type of holographic experience, resonate with me.

If reading is a collaboration, though, between the reader and writer, at what point does the writer have a moral obligation to the reader?

I remain convinced that theology should inform our fiction, but I believe theology should also inform our morality. How do the two intersect?

Morality In Fiction


Prager-ZachariasIn my recent brief series, Theology Versus Morality, (Parts 1, 2, and 3), I essentially took a stand for theology in Christian fiction while calling into question the validity of judging a novel by its morality. For example, in part 2 I said,

I tend to think too many Christians put the cart of morality before the horse of theology. In fact we advocate certain behavior without the foundational belief system that can rightly shape a person’s actions.

Later I added

When it comes to fiction, I think there’s a segment of Christian readers who want their brand of morality mirrored in the stories they read. In fact, for some, the morality might be more important than the theology.

I think that position is bad for fiction and bad for Christianity.

Does that mean that morality has no place in fiction? Should we write the story of adultery with nothing but a suggestion that a way of escape exists? That would be truthful to the way the world is and truthful to theology.

But is it sufficient for the needs of society?

I look at western society, and I see a growing cesspool of immorality. We have TV programs with titles like Scandal and Revenge and Betrayal. Others focus on the criminal mind and blood splatters and entries wound, with the intent to show the process of catching those who perpetrate psychotic and cruel behavior.

We have TV news magazines discussing yet another school shooting, one many people forget because “only” three children died.

Last night’s news carried stories of an old man struck down with intent by a hit-and-run driver in a gas station as he walked toward the office to pay for his gas and of a twelve-year-old and his mother living next door to a state senator (i.e., not your usual violent-crime neighbor) who were bound and gagged while a crew of four robbed their home on a Sunday afternoon.

Further, an NBA athlete was celebrated this week as the first openly gay player in any of the four major sports in the US.

Then on Facebook today, one topic of discussion revolves around an article about the growing advocacy for “polyamory” especially by the media. Clearly, if marriage is no longer allowed to be defined as a relationship between a man and a woman, why should it be limited to a single person with another single person, instead of multiples?

There’s more, from the LGBT community successfully advocating here in SoCal for children to pick the bathroom, locker room, gender sports team, based on how they feel, not on their biology, to the new idea for losing weight based on Yoga meditation and fasting during certain phases of the moon.

The muck and mire of the world is thick and growing thicker.

So do Christian novelists simply tag along, showing society as it is, without addressing morality in our stories? Do we write to the edge, and when the edge shifts further from us, scurry along behind in an effort to catch up? Quite honestly, I think that description fits too much Christian fiction.

Many of the strictures that writers complained about are gone. Christian fiction has characters that are divorced, have affairs, drink, see ghosts, see demons–all things that once were considered taboo. But as general market fiction played at the edges, Christian writers begged to be allowed the same latitude.

The problem, as I see it, is that this move toward a reversal of moral constriction is built on the same error as that which established the legalistic mores in the first place–theology does not undergird the view of morality.

Interestingly, apologist Ravi Zacharias, in a discussion Saturday with radio personality Dennis Prager, identified three levels in which philosophy is passed on: (1) argumentation–reason; (2) art–the imagination; (3) “kitchen table conversation”–the daily statements of belief. To influence society, then, Zacharias says we must argue from reason, illustrate in our art, and live out our beliefs. The problem he says, is that we try to do number three without number one and number two.

Exacerbating the problem, I believe is something G. K. Chesterton identified:

Nothing sublimely artistic has ever arisen out of mere art … There must always be a rich moral soil for any artistic growth.

So if society has lost its “rich moral soil,” how is art to illustrate the theology (philosophy) that underpins our beliefs?

In other words, we are in a downward spiral–a morally vacuous society that cannot produce art which will show us how to live morally.

There but for the grace of God are we all.

But God does give a greater grace. He is “opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble,” Scripture says.

So, what if Christian novelists determined to know nothing but Christ, and Him crucified? What if we painted theology into every corner of our art–and won awards doing so? What if we stopped fighting to get cuss words into our stories or stopped counting the number of times the characters break the Ten Commandments, and started writing to show what God is like, to show His Son, to the best of our ability? What if we gave stories that illustrated the power of forgiveness or love for an enemy, neighbor, or stranger, or for God? What if our stories show what we say we believe?

Wouldn’t that be a step in the process of influencing our society to get out of the morass we are making?

Theology Versus Morality, Part 3


Shepherdandsheep_1298569I ended Part 2, Theology Versus Morality by suggesting that there was perhaps more than one reason some readers want stories that show a “complete conversion”–one in which the protagonist apparently stops sinning.

The problem, of course, is that the story generally ends when the character conquers whatever problem he’s been plagued by, often by making a commitment to Christ. The implication is that ALL is solved and the character will never face the problem again. I suggested some read or write these stories because they put morality ahead of theology. Essentially they’re saying a moral life is the measure of a person’s relationship with God. It’s the same argument Job’s friends made.

But in the stories I’m talking about, the reward God gives is victory over sin.

And the truth is, God does give victory over sin. However, a new believer isn’t always free from addiction at the moment of conversion. Some people struggle. In fact, my guess is that more people identify with Paul’s statements in Romans 7 about the war between what he wants and what he does, than identify with what he said in Romans 6:

our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. (vv 6-7)

Freed from sin, Paul says, but still struggling. Our fiction, however, seems to tell only the first part–freed from sin. Almost automatically. Almost magically. And those stories don’t ring true to readers who struggle with sin in their own lives.

Writers might be penning these stories because they have elevated morality above theology, but they also might write them because they have a philosophy of storytelling that values creating a model for readers to emulate.

A couple years ago I did some study for an article at Spec Faith and discovered that the novel in its earliest forms had two distinct purposes. One was “to invite the readers to mirror the virtues of the story heroes” (“The Point And Purpose Of Reading Fiction”).

I suspect this goal is still the desire of many writers. After all, we as a society copy those we look up to. That’s how fads and fashions catch on. That’s why ad companies use slogans like “Be like Mike,” a popular phrase back in the day when Michael Jordan was at the top of his game.

The key for Christian writers, I believe, is to show a character struggling, wrestling, working to turn away from evil and do good. After all, the Bible says a lot about morality. It would be one sided to pretend that God only cares about what we believe concerning Him, not what we do as a result of our belief.

But we must see morality as an outgrowth of our belief, not a means to gain right standing with God. And the depiction of morality in fiction must not confuse the two.

Some writers, however, believe that, rather than giving a model for readers to emulate, fiction should be a means to understand the world–natural and supernatural. To accomplish this, the writer must accurately and truthful reflect the world, warts and all.

This last approach creates stories that are in line with ones you can find in the book of Judges, involving such things as gang rape and murder, idolatry, betrayal, thievery, abuse, war. The idea is to discover and understand, “to expose life and society for what it is” (“The Point And Purpose Of Reading Fiction”).

These stories, then, subjugate theology to morality, but not for the sake of establishing right morality per se. Rather, a reflection of society, especially an unrestricted look at the underbelly, which exposes or critiques, is the goal.

Here are the two views, both holding theology at bay:

If we understand reading to be a mechanism by which we learn how to be or as a means for personal growth, then we probably want books that call us to godliness or at least to ethical behavior.

If on the other hand, we see reading as a reflection and critique of society, then we want stories that push our awareness of the world, including the seamy side of society. (“The Point And Purpose Of Reading Fiction”)

What I wonder is why those who want to “push our awareness of the world” don’t see as paramount the need to push our awareness of the spiritual side of the world. And by this, I’m not suggesting we need more stories about demons or angels in the vein of Frank Peretti. Rather, there seems to be a great desire to show cursing construction workers and women who sleep around, and not so much a desire to show a loving God who will tend His people like a shepherd, who will carry us with His arm, or hold us close to His chest, or gently lead us.

This is the picture God gives of Himself in Isaiah 40:11. Do we fiction writers think it’s unimportant for the world to understand God as He has shown Himself? Or do we give verbal assent to it but doubt in our hearts that He really shows Himself as He described?

That, I think, might be the key question Christian writers should ask of ourselves. Maybe that all of us should ask.

(Here are the links to Parts 1 and 2.)

Published in: on February 14, 2014 at 6:42 pm  Comments (4)  
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Theology Versus Morality, Part 2


old-carriage-954803-mThere’s a saying my mom used to use which I think is fitting in this discussion about theology and morality. I’ve specifically applied the contrast to fiction, but I think it fits all of life. That saying is, “Don’t get the cart before the horse.”

I tend to think too many Christians put the cart of morality before the horse of theology. In fact we advocate certain behavior without the foundational belief system that can rightly shape a person’s actions.

I don’t want to disparage morality. God clearly chastised Israel for their moral failings–they didn’t keep the Sabbath, didn’t care for orphans and widows, engaged in child sacrifice, trusted in foreign powers. But behind their moral failings was their great theological error:

For my people have committed two evils:
They have forsaken Me,
The fountain of living waters,
To hew for themselves cisterns,
Broken cisterns that can hold no water. (Jer. 2:13)

In a nutshell, Israel abandoned God and chose to create their own system of righteousness. I suggest that a great number of people identifying as Christian today are doing the same thing, whether Progressive Christians or Word of Faith folks or universalists or Jehovah’s Witnesses or Sinless Perfectionists or Trinitarian Theology adherents or Westbow Baptists or any number of other people believing that the good things they do make them acceptable in God’s eyes.

When it comes to fiction, I think there’s a segment of Christian readers who want their brand of morality mirrored in the stories they read. In fact, for some, the morality might be more important than the theology.

We end up, then, with criticism of books like Harry Potter that sounds like this: Never mind that Harry is trying to save the world, he left his dorm room without permission.

Of course he also conspired to take what wasn’t his, lied about leaving school, and broke a host of school rules–all for the greater good. Do such stories teach situational ethics, then?

Perhaps because the Harry Potter books do not pretend to be Christian, they aren’t good examples of viewing morality over theology. But the point is, readers often judge a book by its morality, not its theology.

In fact, there was considerable theology in the Harry Potter books–especially in the last book where Harry sacrifices himself to destroy the enemy. Certainly he was not a Christ figure in the same way that Aslan was in the Narnia books, but he was a type–”a person or thing symbolizing or exemplifying the ideal or defining characteristics of something” (Oxford English Dictionary). Harry exemplified Christ’s defining sacrificial characteristic much the way Biblical figures such as King David exemplified His Kingship and Moses, His role as mediator. They, of course, were real people, though flawed. Harry is fictitious, and equally flawed.

The fact that the Bible uses morally flawed people to point to Christ gives me hope, and it guides my thinking about fiction. The Bible never covered over the sins of the heroes of the faith. Take a look at the list in Hebrews 11, for example. Noah got drunk, Abraham lied, Sarah gave her servant to her husband as his mistress, Issac favored Esau, Jacob deceived his father in order to steal his brother’s blessing, Joseph bragged about his dreams, Moses committed murder, Rahab was a prostitute. None of these people is listed in Hebrews because of their morality. Rather, they had right theology.

I can only conclude that theology trumps morality. But I’m confident right theology leads to right behavior. However, the sanctifying process takes time–a life time, actually.

Why, then, do some readers demand a false conversion in fiction–one that shows characters no longer sinning? There are two possibilities. One is that some readers are choosing good morals over right theology. And that’s a problem.

The other is a more involved possibility, and I’ll reserve that for discussion another day.

(If you’d like to read or re-read the previous article, “Theology Versus Morality,” you’ll find it here.)

Theology Versus Morality


Lion-origional, smallFor over a week I’ve been thinking about theology in fiction. Well, truthfully, I’ve been thinking about it ever since a well-known, respected man in Christian schools circles he couldn’t endorse my fantasy because it had talking animals.

What? Had he not read Narnia?

I was stunned, flabbergasted, frustrated, appalled. And I changed the specifics of my story so animals don’t talk. Not because I agreed with the idea that something was wrong with animals talking. I mean, it’s fantasy! But I wanted to sell my book and have key people endorse it so that more people would read it. Never happened, but that’s not the issue for this post. Rather, it’s the question about where theology belongs in fiction.

This discussion which crops up from time to time, started with a guest blog post by James Somers at Spec Faith. Author Mike Duran picked up on something James said and wrote “No Zombies Allowed (In Christian Fiction).” To which I responded with “Reading Choices: Realism, Truth, And The Bible,” an article which I believed took a middle-ground approach. Mike, in turn, answered my points with a Part 1 and Part 2 rebuttal.

So, yes, this subject has been on my mind and continues to be on my mind. I apologize if this issue isn’t of universal interest. I acknowledge I might be one of the few people still wrestling with the subject, but I think it’s important.

Above all, fiction should convey truth. Novels are not a sermons; they’re illustrations. They show whereas non-fiction tells.

Bad stories are about nothing. False stories are ones that show a lie as if it were truth.

Christian stories should neither be bad or false.

What should they be? In my view, they must be theologically true. That is, they must represent God truthfully, in some way.

God cannot be contained within the pages of one story. He took the entire sixty-six books of the Bible to reveal Himself. Why would anyone think a four-hundred page book could show all of who He is?

But if a book shows God, it must be truthful in what it shows.

Not all books must show God. Some can be morally true and silent on theology.

They can, for example, show that lying is wrong. All kinds of stories have made a statement about lying, and some are written by non-Christians who have no belief in the authoritative Word of God to undergird their position. Nevertheless, they believe lying is wrong and that it is a worthy truth upon which to center a story.

Moral truth is not the same as theological truth. This fact seemed lost on many Christians during the last Presidential election here in the US. A moral man, whose morality agreed in many respects with Bible believing Christians (and disagreed in many ways that never came to light–but that’s a separate issue) ran for office with the expectation that Christians would vote for him. He implied that since his morality was similar, his theology aligned with Christianity.

That’s not true. I’ll tell you whose morality aligns in many respects to Christians–Muslims. But I’m getting sidetracked. The point is, a person can be pro-life or anti-lying and still have wrong views about God. Morality and theology are not the same.

Some people want to impose morality upon fiction. Or some morality.

I suppose I’m one. I’ve said vehemently that I think Christian fiction has no business following a couple into the bedroom and showing their sex act, whether they’re married or not. That’s a moral judgment on my part. I have reached that position via my theology, but that stance is not a theological one.

Like other moral ideas, that one can be shared by people of an number of faiths or no faith at all. It is moral, not theological.

It is theology that Christians need to get right, though I’ll reiterate–not all stories must speak about God. I’d hope that Christians would want to speak about God, whether overtly or symbolically or allegorically or surreptitiously.

I’d hope Christians would want to proclaim Him–to point to His work, His plans and person and purposes. And if they do, they must show Him as He has shown Himself. For example, God isn’t arbitrary.

But wait a minute. A lot of people think He is. Must that aspect of God’s character be true to who He is or to what people think Him to be? I believe, true to who He is.

No one else can speak the truth about God. Only Christians have seen Jesus and therefore seen the Father. Only Christians have the Holy Spirit. Everyone else who speaks about God is going to get it wrong at some point.

So why would Christians want to muddle around, nitpicking about moral matters when theological ones need to be truthfully shown?

Mike Duran used a great illustration which he borrowed from C. S. Lewis. The idea is that a story is the scaffolding for theological truth (in the context of what Lewis said, he was referring to the Resurrection). Mike said, “When we become preoccupied with a story’s ‘scaffolding’ and niggle over literary ‘artifices,’ we will inevitably miss the bigger story.”

The bigger story, as I see it, is what Lewis referred to as the True Myth–the story of God loving His creation, dying and rising for His creation lost in darkness that He might redeem all who believe.

What part of that story can Christian speculative fiction show? Does the idea of all stories being “about” the Great Story seem limiting, boring, predictable? No story has to be any of those.

But it doesn’t happen by hoping. Lewis didn’t hope Aslan would rule Narnia the way God rules our world. He purposefully crafted him to do so.

But now I’m straying toward a discussion on craft. I’ll stop. The point for this discussion is that stories can be moral or they can be theological. They can even be both. But stories held to a rigid morality ought not be confused with ones held to a truthful theology.

Published in: on February 12, 2014 at 8:12 pm  Comments (9)  
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Martyr’s Fire by Sigmund Brouwer – CSFF Blog Tour, Day 2


The Truth About Miracles

Martyr's Fire coverOne of the interesting things about Sigmund Brouwer’s Merlin’s Immortals series, of which Martyr’s Fire is book 3, is that there are no speculative elements in this speculative novel.

Don’t misunderstand. Merlin’s Immortals is correctly identified as part of the speculative genre since it falls into the category of legend. But where other iterations of the King Arthur legend embrace a thread of the supernatural or the miraculous, Merlin’s Immortals explains away what every day people assume to be miraculous.

In book two, for example, the hero of the story capitalizes on a well-known prophecy (which later the reader learns was actually intentionally planted among the people) by creating through “technology” the “miraculous” thing the commoners were looking for.

In Martyr’s Fire, the Priests of the Holy Grail make use of a bit of chemistry not widely known in that day to produce what they called miracles. In other words, both sides (and there is a “third side” about which the same is true) appear to have power beyond the natural, but in fact are simply making use of the natural to exploit the beliefs of the populace.

I find this to be interesting and suspect the idea of no magic or miraculous power falls comfortably inside the theology of some Christians. A segment of evangelicals believes that certain miraculous spiritual gifts have ceased (so that no one today prophesies or can heal, for instance), and it could be that this idea has expanded so that some do not believe miracles happen any longer.

In addition, some are uncomfortable with the idea that Satan and his demonic forces have power. Consequently, they would rather read stories in which evil forces have only conjuring abilities not supernatural might.

I myself am comfortable with either. I don’t need magic or miracles in the stories I read, but if they are there, I enjoy them.

This different approach to magic/miracles makes me wonder. What are miracles?

C. S. Lewis wrote a small book on the subject and he says this in his opening chapter.

Every event which might claim to be a miracle is, in the last resort, something presented to our senses, something seen, heard, touched, smelled, or tasted. And our senses are not infallible. If anything extraordinary seems to have happened, we can always say that we have been the victims of an illusion. If we hold a philosophy which excludes the supernatural, this is what we always shall say. What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience. (Lewis, Miracles, p. 3)

He proceeds to demonstrate that experience is useless when trying to prove the existence of miracles. In the same way, history can’t be relied upon because the same “they were fooled” argument can be made.

In fact, this is the very approach Sigmund Brouwer uses in his Merlin’s Immortals novels.

Lewis claims that a belief in miracles relies upon a philosophical understanding of God. He defines miracle as “an interference with Nature by supernatural power,” so first a person must believe “there exists, in addition to Nature, something else which we may call the supernatural” (Miracles, p. 5).

I’m with Lewis on this, and identify with those he calls Supernaturalists. Some religious people, pantheists, he explains, do not fall into this category:

Speak about beauty, truth and goodness, or about a God who is simply the indwelling principle of these three, speak about a great spiritual force pervading all things, a common mind of which we are all parts, a pool of generalized spirituality to which we can all flow, and you will command friendly interest. But the temperature drops as soon as you mention a God who has purposes and performs particular actions, who does one thing and not another, a concrete, choosing, commanding, prohibiting God with a determinate character. . . .The popular “religion” excludes miracles because it excludes the “living God” of Christianity and believes instead in a kind of God who obviously would not do miracles, or indeed anything else. (Miracles, p. 81, emphasis mine)

In short, miracles are nothing more than God intervening “to produce within Nature events which the regular ‘going on’ of the whole natural system would never have produced” (Miracles, p. 55).

Does God intervene with frequency? Some say yes and others no. My thought is, He can intervene as frequently as He wishes, in small ways or in large. He can intervene by altering time or matter or space–meaning He can cause “coincidences” because people arrive simultaneously with no such intention, water can become wine, and a resurrected body can pass from one place to another in the blink of an eye.

In fiction, I’m happy to read about supernatural power, even if it’s called magic or good magic, because I believe it reflects reality. God is all powerful. What can’t He do!

On the other hand, I don’t need to read stories that show supernatural power. I’m also aware that God works within Nature just as surely as He intervenes to alter it.

Brouwer has chosen to write a speculative series sans supernatural power (at least to this point). He’s done a credible job, and it’s an interesting concept. Perhaps readers who object to fantasy because of the magic will find this series to be right up their alley.

Chasing Hope Sweepstakes


katiecushman

Yesterday I reviewed Chasing Hope by Kathryn Cushman, pictured above. As a reminder, here’s a quick summary of the story (no spoilers).

ChasingHopeSMBook Summary:

A talented runner fully committed to Olympic dreams, Sabrina Rice’s future was shattered. One forfeited scholarship and several years later, she has new goals and dreams that have nothing to do with running–something that’s become far too painful to think on.

Until the day she sees troubled Brandy Philip running across the community college campus. Sabrina immediately recognizes world-class speed.

When a chance encounter brings the two young women together, Sabrina becomes Brandy’s best hope for staying out of juvenile hall. Soon, Sabrina begins to feel an uncomfortable nudge that her new life is just about to be toppled–that God may be calling her to minister to this talented but troubled girl.

Intrigued? You can download a PDF of the prologue and first three chapters and find out for yourself how good the story is.

After my review, I promised to elaborate on the fantabulous (I’m sure it’s a word! ;-) ) sweepstakes author Katie Cushman and her publisher Bethany House are holding in conjunction with the book release.

Here’s the deal: the sweepstakes is already underway, but you still have time to get your name in the hat. In fact, you have until October 3 to enter.

And why would you want to? PRIZES, my friend. Six hundred dollars worth of PRIZES!! And all are related to Chasing Hope.

Check these out.

GRAND PRIZE:

CHAMPION’S CHOICE PACKAGE

grandprizeNike’s motto is: Just Do It, and Sabrina Rice of Chasing Hope lives out this attitude despite tremendous obstacles. But chasing dreams is hard work, and every champion needs fuel for their journey.

To celebrate everyday champions like Sabrina, we’re offering our Grand Prize winner the chance to fuel up, and have some fun as they chase their dreams.

The winner of this package will receive a $200 shopping spree to the Nike Online Store, and a 1-Year subscription to Runner’s World Magazine.

SECOND PRIZE:

secondprizeNEW STRIDE PACKAGE

In Chasing Hope, Brandy Philip has world-class talent, but she needs a fresh start, and a little extra help to get her on the right path. Just like Brandy, we all need a boost now and then, especially when it comes to our health and fitness goals!

While we can’t all have a personal trainer like Sabrina to help us meet those goals, our Second Prize winner will receive the next best thing: This prize includes a $175 value Nike + FuelBand accelerometer, which tracks each step taken and calories burned (and tells the time of day), and The Courage To Start running book, written by popular life coach and former self-proclaimed “couch potato”, John Bingham.

thirdprizeTHIRD PRIZE:

REST & RECHARGE PACKAGE

In Chasing Hope, Sabrina and Brandy find that even the strongest runners also need time to rest.

Whether you run marathons, a carpool, or just weekly trips to the grocery store, you can always use time to recharge!

Our third prize winner will get that chance with a $50 gift card to Spafinder.com, plus an inside look at the life of Eric Liddell, (Sabrina’s hero and inspiration), through the Complete Surrender biography, and the Chariots of Fire DVD, featuring Ben Cross.

So now all you need to know is how to enter. Easy.

Topbanner

How to Enter:

Go to the sweepstakes page and complete the entry box, anytime between now and October 3.

Winners will be selected on Friday, October 4, 2013, and announced on Katie Cushman’s web site.

Might I also suggest you buy the book. This one is a keeper!

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