CSFF Blog Tour – The Book of Names, Part 1

bookofnames-199x300 I don’t know about you, but all I needed to be intrigued by The Book of Names by D. Barkley Briggs (NavPress) is the cover. (Special kudos to NavPress for doing such a terrific job). My first thought was of Edgar Allen Poe, for fairly obvious reasons to anyone familiar with his famous poem, “The Raven.” (And coincidentally, today is the 200th anniversary of Poe’s birthday! 😮 )

I tend to think the imagery is intentional, though I have no inside information regarding that. But the possibility raises an interesting question: how dark is too dark when it comes to fantasy?

If you haven’t read any Poe, you may wonder how I got from him to too dark. Poe’s contributions to American literature—including short stories such as “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart”—are fraught with the macabre and embraced by the Goth. Too dark is perhaps understated.

But what constitutes too dark?

Ted Dekker is famous for his restatement of the idea that fiction, in order to show the diamond of God’s glory, must show the black backdrop against which it stands. In that context, the question seems to be, How black is too black?

I’m reminded of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Return of the King, a very dark book in my estimation. And the closer Frodo went to Mt. Doom, the darker the story became. Yet it is unlikely that book would make anyone’s too-dark list.

So I’m back to the original question, a very practical one for me as a writer … a fantasy writer … with a central good-versus-evil struggle: what constitutes too dark?

Is it true that evil must be drawn clearly in order to showcase good? Dekker said that too much Christian fiction grays evil. If evil doesn’t really look all that bad, then who’s to say Mankind really needs a Savior, so his reasoning goes.

But must we dwell on evil? And what constitutes “dwelling” on it? Is entering into the evil character’s point of view “dwelling” on the evil?

Does this question even have an answer? I believe there is an objective standard of beauty, but is there the same for evil? And if there is, how much is “acceptable” in a piece of fiction?

Here’s the thing. I have a sense that there is a line that authors may cross that would take a story too far into evil, but I don’t know if I can articulate where that line is.

What are your thoughts?

Tomorrow I’ll tie the discussion more specifically in with The Book of Names.

For today, I encourage you to stop by the other participating bloggers who have posted on the book. I’m trying something new. If you click on the check mark that indicates a post is up, it should take you to the specific article. That way, some weeks later, people can still find these articles with ease. (Who knows, if it gets too time consuming, I may have to abandon the idea, but for this month, you’ll have access to the direct links – 😉 ).

19 Comments

  1. Okay, Becky –
    You know me as the fantasy challenged reader…but I LOVED this book! I can’t wait for the sequel to release in April! Glad to see this one touring!

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  2. And a P.S. If anyone is interested in reading an interview I did with Dean Briggs, here is the link information. This man is awesome!

    http://berlysue.blogspot.com/2008/08/view-from-dean-briggs-window.html

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  3. Hi Becky! Great questions :). I actually wrote an article for The Sword Review (now MindFlights) a while back on the subject, called “Beauty and the Beast: Good, Evil, and the Art of Writing.” The link is here: http://www.theswordreview.com/item.php?sub_id=60

    And my post on The Book of Names is now up :).

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  4. Dean is a great guy, and this story is one amazing debut novel! I was quite blown away.

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  5. Becky,
    I’m looking forward to reading your review of The Book of Names. I heartily agree. That is one fabulous cover.

    And I agree, Edgar Allen Poe is quite dark. He happened to be one of my favorite writers when I was a teenager (I know, so very hard to believe!), so I’m quite familiar with his work.

    Here’s what I think. About the whole light and dark conundrum.

    I think a good story needs conflict. That can be almost anything. A girl who’s late for her own wedding. Or a girl who’s marrying a vampire.

    One is considerably darker than the other. But as long as the first version has good conflict, and maybe some humor, it would be a good story. The second version has conflict built in already. Hmmm. Maybe I should write that second one . . .

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  6. Until this moment, I’d never considered the idea of any fantasy being too dark. I read Poe a lot as a kid–not so much in recent years–and recall being intrigued more than frightened. Don’t know what that says about my state of mind! Twisted though it might be, Poe’s work often contained moral questions at their core (it’s guilt, after all, that makes the tell-tale heart beat so loud, is it not?), and I think such questions can redeem even the darkest fantasy tales.

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  7. There is no limit to the darkness an author can pursue, but when it’s a question addressed to the Christian community, usually there will be answers which began at the slightest grey and drop to the darkest black with those at either ends unable to agree on perspective.
    I think Ted Dekker’s assessment is true, but some readers simply cannot handle much darkness in the form of violence and horror/fear-related themes. So of course their specifications for “darkness” are much “lighter” than those who love intense murder mysteries, etc.
    If the objective comes off as simply showcasing the darkness for shock value, then the ultimate contribution to the story might be suspect. Does the author want the darkness remembered or the redemptive “light”?

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  8. You asked: But must we dwell on evil? And what constitutes “dwelling” on it? Is entering into the evil character’s point of view “dwelling” on the evil?

    My Christian fantasy novel is quite dark in my opinion, but as someone already noted, dark is subjective.

    Anyway, mine is about angels and demons, and my MC’s are Michael and Satan. And yes, I have quite a few chapters in Satan’s POV.

    My book is aimed at non-Christians, who’ve read tons of secular books and have been in the POV of some very nasty villians, thus I felt my villian — the villian of all villians — had to top them, or at least really be presented as pure evil, all the while having that alluring quality.

    Do I think I dwelt on evil while writing scenes from Satan’s POV? Not really. I felt it was important becuase so many misconceptions of him (king of hell, torturing sinners in hell, hell being a party, etc) are very dangerous and so far from the truth that they cause a stubling block to salvation.

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  9. I think we tend to rely too much on human wisdom when defining and depicting evil. Evil is anything not good, and the Bible is clear that good is everything that comes from God. There are no “shades” of sin as far as God is concerned: every sin leads to death and separation from God. It is man that judges some sins worse than others. And this leads to writers deciding that they need to depict “darker evil” in order to show how good God is. That reasoning is a fallacy.

    What writers really need to do is to show the true impact of those “lesser evils.” What harm does that little lie do? Or the lack of prayer and study? Or the influence of ungodly companions? I think it is a travesty when those consequences are brushed off in favor of the more “glamorous” or shocking sins.

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  10. My 14 year old is reading this now – interested in your review. Guess I’ll be reading too – to review at http://www.teenlitreview.blogspot.com.

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  11. Very interesting topic.

    Christianity stands apart from other religions in many ways, but particularly in this one. The Bible defines evil. Clearly. It provides a comprehensive understanding of Satan and his clever ways. This is how I came to understand that the Jesus is the one true way. Before I became a Christian, I was one of the “It’s all good” folks, “evil doesn’t exist, it is an illusion”, etc. Well, then I was confronted with murder. Because I understood God to be amoral, I had no idea how to process this event. If “it’s all good” does that mean murder is “all good” too? My rational mind told me, something is not right here, my understanding of God must not be deep enough. And I was right. My understanding of God was incomplete because I lacked an understanding of evil.

    So, I’d have to agree with Ted Dekker, and would also say, a Christian writer without a solid understanding of evil is building their fiction on sand, not rock. As a result, their stories will convey a watered-down, wimpy version of Christianity.

    As for how far to go into evil, I think the writer has to decide. Personally I don’t want to go very far. I do not want to focus that much of my energy on the “darkness”, because I know, for me, it would be unhealthy. We are all different tho, and have different limits.

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  12. […] Today I’d like to call your attention to a wonderful interview of Briggs. I found it over at Window to My World (by way of this post from A Christian Worldview of Fiction). […]

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  13. […] To see the updated list of blog participants who I know have posted see yesterday’s post. […]

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  14. Becky, what a fascinating and thoughtful thread…and a great angle to feature my title. Thank you! As for my own personal view, I tend to side with Ted Dekker, although perhaps with a bit more caution regarding the final outcome. If evil is not presented as truly evil, there should be cause for suspicion and alarm, since we are left unclear as to the great need for divine intervention. The difference between Hitler taking over Europe vs. Mikhail Gorbachev (just pulling a name out of a hat) are instructive. If Hitler was not recognized for his evil ambitions, the Allied powers would not have marshaled to defeat him. On the other hand, a writer wishing to portray the realities of evil too explicitly can perhaps begin to revel in it, with the net effect bringing fascination and allurement to the reader for things which should otherwise horrify. Of course, this is subjective, as you say. And each person, before the Lord, will have a different threshold for what defiles their own conscience. The target audience of a writer will likewise vary. Those steeped in, let’s say, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles may be so conditioned to a certain level of darkness that they would dismiss as naive, and therefore never read, something less than Dekker. Therefore, Ted stands a chance of reaching folks I might not. But I don’t think this should be interpreted as literary carte blanche. God does not shrink from his depictions of evil, but a great deal of what he clarifies is how attractive evil is to the human soul at the most subtle and fundamental levels, simply because we are fallen creatures. Therefore any depiction of evil must be clear-minded in its ultimate aim, which is to create an atmosphere in which the light may shine the brighter.

    Thanks for letting me add my two cents! And thanks for a very thoughtful treatise.

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  15. neat check list! and I love this book!

    re: Here’s the thing. I have a sense that there is a line that authors may cross that would take a story too far into evil…

    I think it’s evil when truth isn’t portrayed as real truth.. I mean for me the guts/gore and all that junk is nothing.. it’s when God is shown as something other than what He is.. if that makes sense..
    I like what Briggs said.. it makes a lot of sense to me.

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  16. Interesting discussion. I do believe there are books where the dark is too dark, but in my opinion Book of Names in not one of them. Yes, the darkness, the evil, is strong here, but no more so than in Peretti’s earliest books, which in my mind are some of the best ever for Christians to realize the need for prayer and true worship. I think Christians today are too comfy in their lukewarm state, so much so that they don’t like to think about the seriousness and the powers that are malevolent to the cause of Christ. The demons and Satan are real, the supernatural is real on both the sides of evil and good. The thing is, God will prevail, but we need to take it seriously. Do we serve the Lord wholeheartedly or not?

    I loved this book; it’s one of my favorites from 2008 without a doubt.

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  17. […] the Part 1 post for the entire list of links to participant […]

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  18. Great discussion, everyone. Thank you so much for participating. As I alluded to, your comments sparked my thoughts for the Part 2 post.

    Just a couple of individual responses: Merrie, Edgar Allen Poe was also one of my favorite authors when I was a teen. I taught a poetry unit to my 8th graders and when we discussed “The Raven” and Poe, my students latched onto him as I had. I think there’s something about his despair that feeds into the youth psyche. (Well, not just youth.) The difference was, I could point out his sad life and how his dark view of the world, of love was not true. My public school teachers could never do that, even if they had wanted to.

    Nicole, I thought your comment pointed out that this issue is two-sided. The author must first decide what is too dark to write, but the reader must also decide what is too dark to read.

    If the objective comes off as simply showcasing the darkness for shock value, then the ultimate contribution to the story might be suspect. Also a great point.

    JC, C.S. Lewis put the reader into the mind of demons in Screwtape Letters, but the evil was still apparent. It was never in doubt that these schemes were meant for destruction of the human soul. I think that might be the test for anyone writing from the antagonist’s point of view. I think that would be a hard, hard thing to do.

    Jessica, thanks for sharing your story. I love hearing how God brought His children to Him. I also think in today’s culture, with the basic premise being that Man is good, the understanding of evil might be more and more important.

    the guts/gore and all that junk is nothing.. it’s when God is shown as something other than what He is.. if that makes sense. Makes perfect sense, Amy. Ironically, I think there are too many “Christian” books, fiction and non-fiction alike, that don’t show God as He is. Not that we can ever do so completely. But how we show Him should not be in opposition to how He has revealed Himself in the pages of Scripture.

    Cathi, I didn’t think The Book of Names was too dark either—even the scene that a couple people said bothered them. But I was reading as an adult, and I can see the wisdom in cautioning parents and teens about the darkness. I had lots and lots of students who wouldn’t bat an eye at the darkness in this book, but I also had a good number who would have had nightmares because of it. That’s where being discerning comes into play. I don’t think there’s a one-book-fits-all rule. Some come close to that, as Narnia did.

    Dean, thanks so much for taking the time to contribute to the discussion. I think the key line, and I wholeheartedly agree, is this: If evil is not presented as truly evil, there should be cause for suspicion and alarm, since we are left unclear as to the great need for divine intervention.

    If any of you wish to add more thoughts, feel free to respond here or over at Spec Faith where the discussion continues.

    Becky

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  19. […] Today I’d like to call your attention to a wonderful interview of Briggs. I found it over at Window to My World (by way of this post from A Christian Worldview of Fiction). […]

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