How “Christian” Is Auralia’s Thread?—CSFF Tour, Day 3

In my review yesterday, I considered bringing up the topic of the Christian content in Jeffrey Overstreet’s enticing novel Cyndere’s Midnight (WaterBrook Press), second in the Auralia’s Thread series. As it was, my review turned into a much longer post than normal, so I opted not to bring up the subject. Besides, it’s not like I’ve been shy about my opinions about Christian fiction.

However, the topic came up in Steve Rice’s third Cyndere’s Midnight tour post in which he examines the perceived weaknesses of the book. Here’s a flavor of his position:

The second feature is secularism. This is related to the first. If you won’t submit your imagination to God, you will inevitably conform to the world. That’s why these stories are so reliably secular and politically correct. It’s also why they can be mistaken for the work of the unsaved.

I wrote a long comment in response, then decided to post it here instead of rewriting it in the form of a normal article. I hope you read Steve’s entire post first, then my response which follows:

Steve, I mostly agree with you. Mostly. If you read Robert Treskillard’s interview with Mr. Overstreet, you read his ideas about theme. He compared his stories to sermons in this way: a preacher has something he wants to say so thinks up an illustration, but Jeffrey envisions a scene, then sees where that takes him.

It is this backwards writing that I rail against. It’s like Christian writers have been brainwashed into thinking that the inclusion of an intentional theme automatically makes a work preachy. It doesn’t! Poor execution may make it preachy, not the mere presence of a theme.

One reason I like the recent Christianity Today article, “Sci-Fi’s Brave New World,” was that it unmasked the truth that those writing from worldviews contrary to Scripture do, in fact, have clearly identifiable themes—ones inconsistent with Christianity.

But at the same time, those themes are woven into the story in such a way that readers “get them” without having been told them.

Is this subterfuge? I don’t see it as such because good literature requires themes to be woven into the story seamlessly, not announced. Consequently, I think it is entirely possible for a story to be a light that not all readers will see.

Some readers, for example, didn’t realize Aslan was a type of Christ until the movie version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe came out and others started talking about the Christian symbolism.

Some stories may present Christ in such a clear way that people will come to Him simply by the reading, but other stories may attract readers to Him by causing them to ask questions they in turn search to have answered.

That being said, I thought there was some strong, unmistakably Christian imagery in Cyndere’s Midnight, but then I was wrong about the Keeper [being an intentional type of God the Father] in Auralia’s Colors, so what I saw may not have been intentional.

I started asking myself what the book was actually saying. Was it that art could free a person from his debase self? But what changed Jordam? Yes, his encounter with Auralia affected him and that’s what drew him to her colors and eventually to the well where Cyndere was. But it was the water of the well that healed his wounds.

Is this intentional symbolism? Is that too subtle to mark the book as Christian?

Well, I’d like to see where the next couple books take us, then we might have a clearer picture.

Oh, and the religion that Cyndere hates, as near as I can figure, is false religion. (But who knows, there is a vocal group that decries all religion. Is Cyndere’s Midnight one more Christian voice lashing out at Christianity? I don’t see it. Nothing in the story resembles Christianity and I have no problem with a story that exposes false religion as … false.)

Please take time to look at the other Cyndere’s Midnight tour posts because next week we’ll once again be voting for the Top Blogger Award. Click on the check marks before the participants’ names in my Day 1 post to access specific articles.

In particular, I recommend you read Jason Joyner’s interview with Mr. Overstreet in which they also discuss Christian fiction.

17 Comments

  1. Jeffrey Overstreet is a tall, nice looking, softspoken man. His demeanor speaks of humility. . . His words do not:

    “I don’t have much time to read, so when I do, I read a lot of poetry and literature that has proven itself to be timeless and beautiful.

    Unfortunately, very little that is published in the CBA market stands up to that kind of test. “Christian fiction” is usually notable because of the “message.” It is very rarely written with the kind of artistry that will stand up to critique. I don’t want to write stuff that will only be read by people who believe what I believe. I want it to be read by people who love imaginative storytelling… and I want them to still be reading it a hundred years from now. That’s why Tolkien, Lewis, and L’Engle’s books are standing the test of time. They’re imaginative, rich with truth, and beautiful.

    I don’t read stories because I want a message. I read because I want to have an experience. I want to use my imagination. I only get the chance to read a limited number of books in my life, and I want to read the most beautiful, rich, meaningful stuff I can find. I firmly believe that that how we say something is just as important as what we say. Christian bookstores are full of books that say good things. But many of those books say good things very poorly, or without much imagination.

    If a book is well-written, many readers all over the world — Christian and non-Christian alike — will find that book compelling. That’s why most “Christian books” are only ever read by people who shop in Christian bookstores.”

    First admitting he has very little time to read, therefore we assume his venture into CBA fiction is limited. However, apparently he thinks he’s well versed enough to spout off this arrogance with a blanket condemnation of “most” of the authors who write “Christian” fiction. This is the new breed of 30-something “artists” who epitomize sanctimonious judgment upon those novels that don’t appeal to their specific tastes, definitions, and descriptions of art forms in literature.

    In spite of his obvious talent and apparently brilliant imagination, this attitude demonstrates holier-than-thou right up there with the best of them.

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  2. If I’m not mistaken, Mr. Overtreet’s concern is not so much having his books contain identifiable Christian themes or recognized as containing such themes, as much as it is having his books categorized as Christian Fiction. In a sense, Becky, your question illustrates this problem. Most secular fiction (and I use the term loosely) does not advertise itself as “secular,” whereas Christian Fiction advertises itself as “christian,” thus creating a series of expectations in its readers and reps. Fact is, Christian readers have come to expect more blatant Christian themes than the ones apparently contained in the Auralia series. So does that make it “non-christian”? And at what point, exactly, does any work of art become “Christian”?

    Jeffrey Overstreet is a wonderful writer. He is also a Christian. Perhaps we’d be better off judging his book on its artistic integrity, rather than on how “Christian” it is. Thanks, Becky!

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  3. All,

    We have to keep in mind that Jeffrey was specifically asked about the CBA, so you’re only getting a one-sided response from him. I would put a gentleman’s bet out there that he would say something similar about the typical ABA book—not timeless, not beautiful.

    The fact is that *most* novels put out today are neither, whether Christian or non-Christian. And the CBA standards (not counting the female bent to the market) apes the ABA in the “commercial fiction” requirements.

    I think what Jeffrey is saying is: I’m trying to do something better, and I think the fact that he spent 10 years on Auralia’s Colors should tell us that he’s putting his “money” where his mouth is. How many of us are willing to labor that long on a single novel?

    And for fairness, I’m speaking as one writing an “overtly Christian” and “Commerical” novel, and I took no offense at what Jeffrey said at all. I believe him. Whether he has achieved what he has set out to do is the question … judge him by his own standards. But I think only time will tell.

    And if he did not reach his goal? A timeless, beautiful set of novels? At least he tried, and I applaud him. You can’t hit a mark if you don’t aim for it.

    I also firmly believe that there is a lot of room among Christian authors to take different approaches. Christ can use all of our works, whether subtle, or overt to reach different people. Jeffrey will likely reach people that overt Christian books will not, and I say amen if he gets them to think—if he plants a seed that someone else may water (to which I also say amen).

    My opinion.

    -Robert

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  4. Nicole–

    This comment makes me chuckle: “This is the new breed of 30-something ‘artists’ who epitomize sanctimonious judgment upon those novels that don’t appeal to their specific tastes, definitions, and descriptions of art forms in literature.” This is something I have had to chastise myself about because if I am not careful I can be a music snob, literature snob, etc. I have to remind myself that God can use it all and it’s not necessarily about my tastes.

    I do see a red flag here: “and I want them to still be reading it a hundred years from now.” Not saying he is guilty of this, but it is so easy as an artist to fall into the trap of glorifying the self, even subtly. Ultimately I hope to judge my work based on how many people it pointed towards Christ, not necessarily on whether my name is being mentioned in literature classrooms in 200 years. Originally, that was actually one of my primary motivators, but I’ve come to realize I would much rather point people towards Christ than to me or my work because then I have made an impact on eternity. Whether or not I make a mark in the human history books is secondary.

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  5. Nicole wrote:
    “First admitting he has very little time to read, therefore we assume his venture into CBA fiction is limited. However, apparently he thinks he’s well versed enough to spout off this arrogance with a blanket condemnation of “most” of the authors who write “Christian” fiction.”

    Nicole,

    While working a full-time job, then writing for two magazines regularly, I have to spend what little “spare time” is left on my novels. So right now, I don’t have much time to read.

    But I do have a degree in English Literature, I have led a reading group for 17 years in which we read from ten to twenty volumes at every gathering.

    Almost every wall in my home, downstairs and upstairs, is lined with bookshelves full of things I love.

    I work with the folks at Image journal, and with the Humanities faculty at Seattle Pacific University. Not a day goes by that we don’t read, write, talk about writing, or visit with authors.

    And honestly… none of this is a boast. They’re just a few details to suggest that I’m not making some kind of outrageous claims when I talk about the difference between classic literature and the kind of commercial fiction that usually disappears in a couple of years’ time.

    I expect my mechanic to know a little bit about cars. I expect the wine guy in the wine shop to know a few things about wine. I would be quite a failure if I hadn’t learned anything about writing and literature after a lifetime of studying it and pursuing it, and after learning from many of my favorite authors in person. Again, I know I have much to learn, and I’m sorry if it sounded like I was bragging.

    When God revealed his desires for the Tabernacle, he demanded the best artistry. Not the most devout believers, but the best artists from all over the region, even from other cultures. That tells me that artistry is important to him. Humility and truth and beauty… and artistic excellence.

    I don’t care if anyone remembers my name in 100 years. Seriously.

    But I do want to strive to write a story that is well-crafted. A lot of people have sacrificed so that I could have the chance to write. I have a responsibility to take this opportunity very, very seriously. Not for fame. Not for ego. But I want to serve God with the talent he gave me… so that the story will do a good work for him and live on… just as someone who designs a Boeing 747 had darn well better be concerned that the plane be sturdy and land safely for many years to come.

    You also said:
    This is the new breed of 30-something “artists” who epitomize sanctimonious judgment upon those novels that don’t appeal to their specific tastes, definitions, and descriptions of art forms in literature.

    What do you mean by “epitomize sanctimonious judgment”?

    Personally, I thought I was just suggesting it’s important to be selective and to care about excellence.

    I love all kinds of genres in literature just as I love all kinds of musical styles. But there is such a thing as good, better, and brilliant. And I would like to spend my time reading the best stuff I can find. I take the same approach in the grocery store. There are foods that are full of chemicals, and foods that are full of nourishment. One satisfies an appetite immediately, another brings health to the body and the mind.

    If choosing the latter makes me a snob, then I will embrace the label wholeheartedly.

    Having said that, I do enjoy Oreos from time to time… just as I enjoy reading a throwaway adventure story from time to time, or watching an episode of CSI. There are pleasures and rewards even in the slightest of things. And if a desire for excellence leads to a lack of humility and love, then it has become an idol.

    It’s funny… these things I’m saying, I must care about them, because characters in The Auralia Thread are wrestling with some of the same things.

    I have sincerely expressed, time and time again, that I am no judge of my own work, and that I have no idea if I have succeeded at my goal of writing something excellent. If my words have seemed haughty, I am sorry. I often feel unprepared and ill-equipped to deliver what’s expected of me. But I’m doing my best with what I have. And if caring about excellence is the same thing as being snobbish, then I think we need more snobs.

    I hope you enjoy the rest of the series.

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  6. Rebecca wrote:
    It is this backwards writing that I rail against. It’s like Christian writers have been brainwashed into thinking that the inclusion of an intentional theme automatically makes a work preachy. It doesn’t! Poor execution may make it preachy, not the mere presence of a theme.

    Rebecca,

    Themes are important, of course. I was only describing my approach to storytelling. Themes emerge as I write. But if I become too distracted by them, I can feel the life draining out of the story, and I become too self-conscious about “the message.” I believe that “messages” and “themes” can surprise me, especially if I don’t determine them ahead of time. That style works for me. It may not for other writers. C.S. Lewis always said that Narnia began with an image of a lamppost and a faun. I get that.

    But I don’t think it’s for the author to *declare* the theme. It’s for readers to discover. If I put out a book and say, “The theme of this book is racism,” then that is what people will go into the experience thinking about. Better to let them discover the theme, and maybe they’ll discover *many* themes.

    As I have said on many occasions, the Auralia stories make me think about the journey of the artist in the world, the journey of the Christian in the world, and the hard road of carrying one’s particular burden of responsibility as one discovers and develops talents and gifts. Through those “lenses”, I understand some of what the stories wanted to show me. But there are other lenses, and I’m delighted to discover what they are.

    My favorite experience in interviewing filmmakers is when I say to them, “I love how you did *this*, and how powerfully your film communicated this” and they respond, as they have time and time again, by saying, “Yikes. I have *never* thought of that before.”

    That tells me that art has the ability to reveal truths that the artist isn’t even aware are there. That encourages me, and makes the artistic process more exciting.

    Think about all of the truths that have been reflected in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

    Now think about the fact that he insisted the theme of the story is “the problem of longevity.”

    Hmmmmm.

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t know that before you read it? Is *that* the main thing you got out of it?

    It’s certainly a theme I can see woven through The Lord of the Rings. But there is so much more.

    So I’ll keep to myself the theme that has emerged for me most prominently in the writing of The Auralia Thread. Because I don’t want to mess with anybody’s enjoyment or discovery.

    In short, I agree with you: Theme is hugely important. But how that theme is explored, and whether it should be intentional from the beginning or not, I think that is open for discussion, and there is no One Right Way to approach it in literature, just as painters and musicians approach music in myriad ways.

    Thanks so much for taking these subjects so seriously. I love these discussions. It’s one of the reasons I write… so I can learn from others’ contributions to what follows….

    Peace,

    Jeffrey

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  7. “Thanks so much for taking these subjects so seriously. I love these discussions.”

    Ditto. I enjoy seeing how others approach faith in their writing (and as they are writing). It helps me clarify my own process.

    p.s., I was only calling myself a snob. 🙂 I have to be careful not to think “I could do sooo much better” when I am reading or listening. Because, then it’s all about me, as if somehow I am more special. Yes, I am special to God, but not *more* special.

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  8. I love these discussions, too! 😀

    About themes, Jeffrey, you said the following: But I don’t think it’s for the author to *declare* the theme. It’s for readers to discover. We’re in perfect agreement. It is in the proclamation of a theme that it becomes preachy. And what writer who are into proclamation may not realize, readers aren’t generally impacted by something someone else tells them but by something they discover. Generally, I said. But educational studies bear this out. Of course God’s Spirit can use the back of a cereal box if He wants to, but we as writers would be wise to look at what has proven successful, then prayerful proceed as God would have us.

    You also said Theme is hugely important. But how that theme is explored, and whether it should be intentional from the beginning or not, I think that is open for discussion, and there is no One Right Way to approach it in literature, just as painters and musicians approach music in myriad ways. I have to agree. Just as there are writers who plot and writers who meander through a story. I can’t imaging a meanderer first choosing a theme and then expecting to meander into a story that will support it.

    So perhaps I overstated my case to make the point. From other discussions in writing circles, and from what I read in your interview with Robert, I perceive that writers who speak against preachy, message-driven stories believe there is no possibility of writing with intention and not being preachy. I don’t want to err on the other side and say that writers who don’t write with intention will never come up with worthwhile themes. I know that’s not true. One of my favorite authors, Kathleen Popa, is a meanderer, yet her themes are anything but shallow or vapid.

    In reality, in my response to Steve, I was trying to say, I found more depth in Cyndere’s Midnight than what he apparently found. But with this question about the purposefulness of theme, I had to wonder if what I found was anything like what you intended to communicate.

    But, no, I don’t think it’s a good idea for an author to “tell all.” I’m thinking, if what I saw was a part of what you discovered and included because it was what you wanted to communicate, then I’ll see more like it in the next book and the next. So we’ll see. 😉

    And to each of you, Jeffrey included, thanks for stopping by and leaving these comments.

    Becky

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  9. My commentary was no criticism of your work, Jeffrey. I know you have extraordinary talent just by having read various blog posts, Through A Screen Darkly, etc. I don’t like fantasy or specfaith, so I haven’t read your novels. The adverse reaction to the selected quote from an interview is this basic attitude that because you labor over your art and are educated, teach, live, and breathe it, that you can be the judge of anyone else’s brilliance/talent/gifting and what value it has. And you’re not alone.
    You talk about classic literature, but I’m sure you realize that some of the classics wouldn’t be published by anyone today because of the current trends. You want to spend your time finding the “best” stuff you can find. I don’t blame you for that, but neither do I see you as the judge of that for anyone else but yourself. Even based on your innate skills, your learned experience and talents, your striving for excellence in your own work–which is commendable, admirable even–does not get to determine what someone else believes is “good, better, brilliant”. Yes, there will be consensus for art in its various forms and valuable appreciation based on knowledge, skill evaluation, and even opinion, but isn’t it a better approach to simply state your own desires and describe your efforts rather than to downgrade those of others?
    Artistry is important to God because it is His desire to receive the appreciation for it since He releases His creativity in us. He has a purpose for it, a direction in it, unique to individuals, and more farreaching than our meager imaginations can fathom.
    I am certainly not criticizing your efforts, your hopes or dreams, your talent, or your preferences in any form of art. What I am questioning is your explanation of excellence and your basically blanket criticism of “Christian” fiction and the authors who attempt to make their work as meaningful in their categories as you do in yours.

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  10. hehe, makes me think of the Matrix.. which I found the first one extremely christian… i like your response to this R!

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  11. Interesting that you should mention the “Christianity Today article, “Sci-Fi’s Brave New World,” and how that “those writing from worldviews contrary to Scripture do, in fact, have clearly identifiable themes—ones inconsistent with Christianity.” I almost read that article this morning but was then distracted. After reading this post- I’m going to make a concerted effort to read the article tomorrow so that I can relate it to all you’ve mentioned. I’ll MAKE time for it if I must- Thanks! Thought provoking!

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  12. Robert said:

    “We have to keep in mind that Jeffrey was specifically asked about the CBA, so you’re only getting a one-sided response from him. I would put a gentleman’s bet out there that he would say something similar about the typical ABA book—not timeless, not beautiful.

    “The fact is that *most* novels put out today are neither, whether Christian or non-Christian. And the CBA standards (not counting the female bent to the market) apes the ABA in the “commercial fiction” requirements.”

    Very wise.

    Keep in mind that most literature from any era is quickly forgotten. Times past have the advantage of the dross having been removed from time. What remains does so by merit and is read solely because it rose above the majority of its contemporaries to be judged memorable.

    By living through the time you do, you are saddled with the task of wading through the dross of the moment in the hopes of finding the few gems that will remain after the fires of time have burned the rest. Such is the task of every generation.

    Wade Ogletree

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  13. Mr. Overstreet said,

    “In short, I agree with you: Theme is hugely important. But how that theme is explored, and whether it should be intentional from the beginning or not, I think that is open for discussion, and there is no One Right Way to approach it in literature, just as painters and musicians approach music in myriad ways.”

    In response to Rebecca who said,

    “It is this backwards writing that I rail against. It’s like Christian writers have been brainwashed into thinking that the inclusion of an intentional theme automatically makes a work preachy. It doesn’t! Poor execution may make it preachy, not the mere presence of a theme.”

    This is not the first time a writer (in this case, Rebecca LuElla Miller) has decided that there must be something wrong with an approach to writing she doesn’t use and doesn’t understand. Nor is it the first time that a writer has treated an approach to writing as if its very existence is an attack on the way she writes.

    “It’s like Christian writers have been brainwashed into thinking that the inclusion of an intentional theme automatically makes a work preachy.”

    The central error here is in linking how an author comes to his theme with whether a theme is “intentional” or not. Balderdash. If a writer starts with a theme, are his characters, setting, and mood no longer “intentional”? One writer is inspired to find a germ of a story from a theme. Another writer is inspired to find his theme from the germ of a story. Why rail against either? What is the logical point?

    One does not have to have been “brainwashed” to use a different creative approach.

    Wade

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  14. Great discussion!

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  15. Hi, Wade,

    You said This is not the first time a writer (in this case, Rebecca LuElla Miller) has decided that there must be something wrong with an approach to writing she doesn’t use and doesn’t understand. Nor is it the first time that a writer has treated an approach to writing as if its very existence is an attack on the way she writes.

    I do know that writers have different starting points, and I think you make a good case for that. However, I think you’ve missed what I’m really railing against. The idea that is repeated over and over is this: stories with messages are nothing but propaganda. Or written another way: I let the theme emerge, I don’t preach.

    You see, I believe I’m actually the one advocating for writers to be allowed to use a different creative approach, and still be seen as creative. The impression I had after reading some of those interviews was that there was the creative way and there was the preachy way.

    I don’t believe those are the only two choices.

    Becky

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  16. Becky said,

    “You see, I believe I’m actually the one advocating for writers to be allowed to use a different creative approach, and still be seen as creative. The impression I had after reading some of those interviews was that there was the creative way and there was the preachy way.”

    Well…if that’s what you meant, there goes my reason to be upset. Oh well. Peacemakers and all that.

    Themes and symbolism are very important to me. I generally can’t choose a theme and craft a story around it but rather begin crafting a story and look for what the story might begin to say and how I can shape it. My stab at hard science fiction, “And Saturn Below” (Abyss & Apex), was built on the theme of the selfish pursuit of the dream vs. the old-fashioned values of family. It was a theme that at least one commentator found “uncomfortable”. On the other hand, at least one theme emerged from “The Sphinx and Ernest Hemingway” (Fantasy Magazine) that I did not intend. For me, the theme was the treatment of women by Hemingway and the type of men he personified: specifically, that there was very little difference between the pursuit of the next woman and the big game hunt. One commentator took this as the theme: that Hemingway had two halves to his nature and could not have given up either one without it having ended badly. The funny thing is, that upon consideration, I had to admit that was one logical reading of the story–even though it was a theme I fundamentally disagreed with.

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  17. “Keep in mind that most literature from any era is quickly forgotten.”

    This is true. I’ve just been flicking through 80 Years of Best Sellers in the reference secton of our library. The first best seller lists were dominated by names we know longer know, Like Marie Corelli. Here’s a few names I noted more than once from the earlier part of C20th.

    James Hilton, A J Cronin, Ian Maclaren, J M Barrie, Anthony Hope, Maurice Thompson, Edith Wharton, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Booth Tarkington, Zane Grey, Ethel M Dell, P C Wren, Mary Roberts RInehart, Pearl S Buck, WIlla Cather, Lloyd C Douglas.

    How many names did you know? How many have you read? I suspect many of us will have encountered the works of these older novelists as movies, sometimes in multiple versions. Each of the above, I suspect, will still have a loyal mob of readers. Some will be read primarily in English Lit courses. So it is possible to leave a trace in the culture when people no longer read your original novel.

    Some novelists remain around but become generic. So we might say, “I’m reading an Agatha Christie, or a Dorothy L Sayers” and it almost doesn’t matter which one. There’s a lot to be said for genre novels if you get it right.

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