CSFF Blog Tour – On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, Day 3

I so love a good controv … uh, discussion! (Emoticon here, rubbing hands together with look of satisfaction glinting from its eyes).

Seriously, I feel like I learn so much from the give and take of dialogue, even about my own views and certainly about what others are thinking and what makes them tick.

I’m referring, of course, to the stir resulting from my last post in which I quoted Andrew Peterson, author of On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, in his comment on another site answering the “Christian fiction” question.

Those of you who visit here frequently know I have an ongoing discussion with Mike Duran about this subject. And here’s the crux of the issue. Some people define Christian fiction as (mostly preachy) stories in which one character becomes a Christian.

My argument has long been (contrary to what Mike may think – 😉 ), Christian fiction isn’t that alone, and no stories should be preachy. That’s just bad fiction.

In the discussion yesterday, Mr. Peterson (thanks for taking the time to comment, by the way) added something new to the mix: stories that unintentionally tell the truth, are they also Christian? He cited C. S. Lewis, Tolkien, Les Miserables, Gilead, Peace Like a River, and one or two others (and I admit, I question whether all those authors were unintentional about the redemptive elements of their stories). Commenter Travis then mentioned an extension of this idea: “the gospel sneaks itself into stories by non-Christians.”

So the question is, are all stories that show redemption, intentionally or unintentionally, overtly or subliminally, “Christian”? And where precisely does a story with a “Christian worldview” fit in?

To answer the first, I would have to say, No, stories by non-Christians, no matter how much they may remind us of Christ’s redemption and no matter how God may choose to use those stories to bring people to Himself, aren’t “Christian.”

I plead for the same definition in fiction as in life. In simple form, “Christian” refers to a person who belongs to Jesus Christ, who follows Him. A non-Christian’s story may reveal a struggle between good and evil, with good winning out, and Christians understand that Good is God, that He wins through the death and resurrection of His Son. But I suggest a story that is open to good being interpreted as “The Force” or Mankind’s own positive energy, or whatever else non-Christians understand as good, can’t be considered “Christian.”

On the other hand, I don’t think Christians are limited to retelling the redemption story. There is a significant need for “seed planting” stories. These, in my view, fall into the category of Christian worldview stories. They are true and consistent with Scripture, but make no attempt to portray Christ’s redemptive sacrifice. It doesn’t mean, however, that they don’t point to Him.

What’s the difference between the former and the latter? I’d have to say it’s the intention of the author. Here’s where I pull out my bullhorn. What we’re talking about is writing a story that has a theme. Some refer to it as a message and others as an agenda. I disagree. A theme is a theme. It is neither a message nor an agenda if it is woven with care into the fabric of a story.

And that careful weaving, I contend, is next to impossible unless some thought—some intention—is given to it.

Can a non-Christian stumble upon truth? Certainly. The myths C. S. Lewis fell in love with eventually pointed him to Christ because he finally came to realize there was a True myth. Perhaps they are imitations of reality, perhaps they reflect the hunger for God in every human heart. Nevertheless, those myths are not Christian.

And why is “proper labeling” important? Perhaps only for the sake of identifying truth. How many Christian parents embraced The Lion King because it was cute and clean—never mind that it was full of false religion.

Christian fiction, in my opinion, should not be about the trappings of Christianity, but somewhere along the line this seems to be what it has become in the minds of many.

Who can change this if not writers? Not by writing “less” Christian works or by eschewing theme. Not by assuming our worldview will surface without our intention. No. Christian themes, Christian worldview themes need to be crafted into our stories. And that takes work. Just as much work as crafting a world or a character or a plot.

Bullhorn down! 😉

You might wish to read what people are saying about the delightful book that started all this conversation, so check out the other posts by these fine bloggers:

Sally Apokedak/ Brandon Barr/ Jim Black/ Justin Boyer/ Jackie Castle/ Valerie Comer/ CSFF Blog Tour/ Gene Curtis/ D. G. D. Davidson/ Jeff Draper/ April Erwin/ Beth Goddard / Marcus Goodyear/ Todd Michael Greene/ Jill Hart/ Katie Hart/ Michael Heald/ Timothy Hicks/ Christopher Hopper/ Jason Joyner/ Kait/ Carol Keen/ Mike Lynch/ Margaret/ Rachel Marks/ Shannon McNear/ Pamela Morrisson/ John W. Otte/ Deena Peterson/ Rachelle/ Steve Rice/ Cheryl Russel/ Ashley Rutherford/ Chawna Schroeder/ James Somers/ Donna Swanson/ Steve Trower/ Speculative Faith/ Robert Treskillard/ Jason Waguespac/ Laura Williams/ Timothy Wise

Highlighted links are bloggers I know have posted already.

13 Comments

  1. I agree/disagree.

    Because I’m grouchy and confounding like that.

    I agree that Christian worldview is an intentional construct, stemming from the truth that God lays out.

    HOWEVER, as a Christian, complete with “proper” (i.e. truthful) woldview (batteries not included) and a writer, it becomes impossible…yes, impossible…for me to write from anything other than a Christian worldview. It doesn’t become an intentional act to “build it” into the story I write.

    I can, and do, completely unintentionally incorporate worldview into my fiction, just as the “cars” I write unintentionally incorporate “tires.”

    My characters, generally, are “regular” folks, most of whom who do not share a Christian worldview. Keep in mind that Barna Research revealed that only 9% of confessing Christians actually hold a Christian worldview. This is significant.

    In my stories, approximately 9% of Christians portrayed also hold a Christian worldview. This simply reflects reality. Those holding, and speaking to, a Christian worldview, is a tiny minority of a subset of American Christians.

    Let me put the numbers another way: out of my characters, maybe 40% are regular church goers and 70%, when pressed very hard, would associate themselves with some sort of Christian belief, but, in a casual setting, probably less than 10% would even casually evangelize other characters.

    Of that 60% of potential confessors, only 10% of them identify as holding a Christian worldview.

    In other words, the “worlds” I build are populated in identifiable proportion to the world around me: most people don’t speak of spiritual things at all, of those who do, a number are athiests or of non-Christian religions. If I do have a Christian, odds aren’t good that even he will hold or confess a Christian worldview. In other words, Christians in my books look a lot like Christians in the world – pretty secular when it comes down to behavior.

    Only when a character changes within the narrative, and, for example pursues an ideal, do my readers get any sense that these people are anything other than regular folk going about their business.

    Now, the worlds I construct are designed to reflect my Maker’s design. In my tales, people sin, people forgive, people encounter the strange, and come away with varied reactions. History is orderly, as is the cosmos, but the human characters tend to stumble in the dark.

    I’ve written a short story that is basically a post-modern retelling of the gospel that is overtly evangelical in nature, AND is intended for a secular audience. In fact, it is a story that made little sense to more traditional Christians, but engaged a large group of non-believers to discuss and argue about the possibility of the temple veil splitting at the death of Christ, or darkness falling across the land.

    However, had I “intentionally” added exposition to “undergird” the organic (i.e. unintentional) Christian worldview present in the tale, it would have read like I was trying to write the wheels onto a car, so to speak. I would have changed my engaging, unapologetically “Christian” story for a non-Christian audience into little more than a tract.

    People have a lot of different reasons for writing fiction, and I think, at least for me, worldview follows naturally within the authoring of the book…it does not, and can not, drive it.

    Perhaps I’m splitting hairs. I told you I agree/disagree!

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  2. I don’t think you’re splitting hairs at all, xd. In fact, part of what you said illustrates why I go off on my theme rants. You said: However, had I “intentionally” added exposition to “undergird” the organic … The idea seems to be firmly in place that to do theme intentionally means to do it badly, for certainly an exposition to undergird your story would have been badly done.

    And yet you described it as a retelling of the gospel. Was that not intentional?

    As to worldview having to come out, I must disagree with you on that one. I write sports stories for a local newspaper group, and I feel pretty confident no one reads those articles and discerns my Christian worldview. I could write the story to show my beliefs, but I would not be doing what the paper hires me to do. Pure and simply, I choose to let my worldview show in my writing or not.

    Fiction is really no different. The first time I entered a Writers Digest competition, I wrote a story without a Christian theme. It had a moral theme, nothing more. Since then, I’ve written decidedly Christian themed stories, including the last one that placed.

    Interestingly, I would say that story is just the opposite of yours—probably most non-Christians won’t see there is any spiritual significance. Not that it’s hidden, but I think the spiritual is spiritually discerned.

    Becky

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  3. I have to disagree also that the Christian worldview will be present regardless of what you, as a full-blown Christian, will write.

    Here are my classic examples: Shoofly Pie, Chop Shop, and First the Dead, all by Tim Downs featuring his unique “Bug Man” character. Tim Downs professes to be a Christian, and I have no reason to doubt him. But these three novels have not ONE thing in them that could even be vaguely construed as Christian worldview. All three were published by Christian houses (the first two by Howard Publishing [before Simon & Schuster bought it] and the third by Thomas Nelson). To contrast these is his novel Plague Maker which is wholly Christian.

    I also wonder about the statistics you cited. I think they could be skewed by geography and denominations.

    And as far as your own work, you have to write what is on your heart, what God has given you to do. But to project it beyond your own framework of creativity is short-sighted.

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  4. What about “Christian biographies”? They cover Christians, presumably including their beliefs and struggles, triumphs and failures. I was astonished that unbelievers were astonished at the late Mother Teresa’s Dark Night of the Soul. It shouldn’t have been news.

    Now, the amazing thing I do is this: I write biographies of fictional Christians. They have their ups and downs, but they are Christians, and that no more requires sermonizing than writing about C. S. Lewis does. But it gives an example, and that we sorely need. Tolkien said that even pretend history was more useful than allegory.

    Where the quota system of character religion is concerned, it’s a cop-out on a couple levels. A lot of media people claim to be mirroring reality, but even “reality TV” is massively faked. Reality is boring: we see it all the time. So even when people claim to be presenting reality, they skew it. They sex it up. Otherwise it tanks. The question then is, why skew it away from Christianity–away from truth?

    But the other major problem with the “mirror” idea is that it leads to a feedback loop. You present your (always faulty) image of reality; that affects how others perceive reality, which in turn affects your image, and so on. The mirrors we choose always play things up or down, and eventually we reap what out images have sown. So if you present a world in which Christianity is a fringe pursuit, you will reinforce that idea in your reader’s mind. Once that happens often enough, guess what the result will be?

    So my characters act as though their faith matters, because it does. They try to think biblically and obey God. Why? Because that’s the way people usually act? No, because I am sowing a seed of what should be–opening the reader’s eyes to a possibility our culture ignores and censors.

    If we aren’t for Jesus, we’re against him. If we don’t gather with him, we scatter. Pick a side.

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  5. Ooh, good line, Becky. I agree that the spiritual is spiritually discerned.

    Your example of sports stories for the local newspaper doesn’t hold up in this context very well, to me. Of course your worldview doesn’t come out in these pieces. Firstly, the goal of news writing is to report events objectively. Secondly, even if a journalist chose not to be objective and let their own worldview color their writing, the concise nature of news writing means there is little time or space for this to happen, and I doubt a newspaper would allow it. So journalists do have the choice, but for it to remain a news piece on sports, and for it to be published by the paper, there aren’t that many options, really. Unless of course it’s a feature news story, more human interest than news….but I’m digressing…

    You said, “Fiction is really no different.” And I have to disagree. There are a few ways in which journalism and fiction writing are the same, yes. Namely that they both involve writing and planning. By and large, however, they differ, and their differences are what have drawn me to fiction writing and away from journalism. Fiction writers are allowed the freedom to create the work that they see in their mind (there is restricted freedom in journalism; for an example of this freedom taken too far, see the film Shattered Glass). There are fewer expectations and accepted practices for a fiction writer, and fiction writers are not expected to be objective or unbiased. In fact, it’s the bias that makes many books attractive to us as readers. Just my thoughts, take them as you will. 🙂

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  6. What I believe Becky was referring to is that not EVERY thing a person writes will automatically reflect their Christian worldview–and in that way writing is intentional. Maybe that’s what she meant–she certainly doesn’t need me to interpret for her.

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  7. Oh man, don’t let’s get me started on poor old Mother Theresa. heh heh.

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  8. Every good story needs an antagonist, so I guess I’m yours, Becky.;) As I’ve said before, the problem with defining Christian Fiction (or “Christian” anything) is that the definitions are fairly abstract and arbitrary. While “Christian” is clearly defined in Scripture, “Christian art” is not. You’ve narrowed it down to “intention.” But that’s a sticky proposition.

    Dr. Ralph Wood, Professor of English at Baylor University and a Tolkien expert, in his wonderful essay, “Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: A Christian Classic Revisited”, states that Tolkien, “…called The Lord of the Rings ‘a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.’ Its essential conflict, he insisted, concerns God’s ‘sole right to divine honour’ (Letters, 172, 243).” So here we have Professor Tolkien, a Christian, whose stated INTENT was to create something “fundamentally religious,” something that illustrated a supremely “Christian” concept” (‘God’s ‘sole right to divine honour’). Nevertheless, DESPITE THE AUTHOR’S INTENTIONS, many view LotR as great epic fantasy, but NOT Christian Fiction. So what an author / artist intends and what the viewer interprets, are two different things.

    You assert that “…stories by non-Christians, no matter how much they may remind us of Christ’s redemption and no matter how God may choose to use those stories to bring people to Himself, aren’t ‘Christian'” Becky, how in the world can you make such a definitive statement!? Balaam’s ass may not have been a believer, but the words coming out of his mouth were the very words of God. God can make even “the wrath of man… to praise Him” (Ps. 76:10); Caiaphas himself unknowingly prophesied (John 11:49-51), so why not wayward musicians and liberal authors? To diminish or disregard someone’s words (or artistic works) because that person happens to be a jackass puts God (and His Truth) in a box we may never get out of.

    Once again, the problem is in defining some thing, any THING, as Christian.

    Grace and Peace…

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  9. Again, my point is that only 9% of Christians have a “Christian worldview.” I’d argue that is why it is possible for a believing Christian to write fiction that is not molded by worldvie.

    The difference between writing sports articles (non-fiction) and fiction is vast. There is no “worldbuilding” in non-fiction, especially not direct news reporting (or at least there shouldn’t be! Unfortunately, I’ve noticed far too much fiction in hard news, as I’m sure have we all). Fiction hinges on worldbuilding. Worldbuilding stems from one’s model of construction, and those happy few who hold a Christian worldview will have the actual Maker as a model.

    Therefore, I’m speaking of the 9% of Christians (which would be what, less than 4% of all Americans) who actually hold beliefs consistent with a “Christian worldview” who are called to write fiction (an even tinier subset). These are the fiction writers who will find it impossible to write fiction that is not informed and shaped by that worldview.

    As far as intention goes, when it comes to fiction, intention only goes so far. I’ve had characters go on strike, plots that torqued in ways I couldn’t have guessed, and themes that have emerged despite my best intentions. My calling is to tell stories, not themes.

    And no, actually, the Gospel retelling was not intentional at the time. I had a vision of a person tangled in kite-string and hung up in a man-eating tree. As I started to tell the story, it was about him getting out of the tree. The theme, if I had bothered to stop to identify it, would have thought to have been “escape.” I was too busy writing down what happened next to realize (until I was about halfway through) that it was, as I describe it now, a postmodern retelling of the Gospel, whose theme was much greater: “the grace of God’s redemption.”

    It was humbling. And I assure you, it was not intentional.

    I’m not saying that you can’t “intend” theme. I’m just saying that, theme can emerge without intention, or it can change, even with intention. In the work of that tiny subset of Christian fiction writers with a Christian worldview, I will continue to argue that Christ’s model of construction is impossible to escape.

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  10. Mike Duran said: Nevertheless, DESPITE THE AUTHOR’S INTENTIONS, many view LotR as great epic fantasy, but NOT Christian Fiction. So what an author / artist intends and what the viewer interprets, are two different things.

    Seems that I recall YOU were one of those “many,” Mike, challenging my inclusion of him in my list of top Christian fantasies.

    Balaam’s ass may not have been a believer, but the words coming out of his mouth were the very words of God. If we’re talking about what he said, of course the message was God’s. But that didn’t change the fact that the vehicle God used to deliver His words was still a donkey.

    Caiaphas himself unknowingly prophesied (John 11:49-51), so why not wayward musicians and liberal authors? To diminish or disregard someone’s words (or artistic works) because that person happens to be a jackass puts God (and His Truth) in a box we may never get out of. There’s the problem, Mike. I never diminished or disregarded these works, just because I say they aren’t examples of Christian fiction.

    I am not holding Christian fiction up as if it is the only way God can speak through story. In fact, I even questioned why we need to make the distinction at all. My conclusion—the truncated version—was “for the sake of identifying truth.” With the mushrooming number of stories, and sources of stories, it is harder and harder to make informed decisions about what to read—for adults themselves and for parents in guiding their children. Add to this, a distancing from the teaching of discernment, and we have a culture more and more reliant upon what a few influential folks have to say.

    So we can say, Read this book because Oprah says to. Or because Chuck Colson says to. Or we can say, Read this book because it is Christian fiction, meaning that the Christian worldview informs the writing. In the latter, you can assume you won’t find the character coming to an epiphany that if he just tries hard enough he’ll eventually be good enough to make it to heaven. Or that if he prays to his ancestors, all will be well. Or whatever other false teaching might be circulating.

    As I’ve considered submitting to general market publishers, I keep coming back to the fact that I WANT readers to know what informs my writing. But that’s me.

    Becky

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  11. […] theme woven through? If you care about the discussion, you can read the posts here, and here, and […]

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  12. […] theme woven through? If you care about the discussion, you can read the posts here, and here, and […]

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  13. […] Andrew Peterson, musician and author of On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, Book 1 of the Wingfeather Saga – middle grade fantasy, North! Or Be Eaten, WaterBrook […]

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