The Christmas Spirit

Christmas is a cherished holiday with any number of traditions. Consequently, the “Christmas spirit” has been fashioned out of the best of the season. In fact, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, his well-loved story about this season, takes to task those who disparage the qualities we most associate with the Christmas spirit—generosity, love, and joy.

Noticeably missing is fear. Odd, since fear played a great part in the first Christmas. Joseph was afraid to go through with his planned marriage because Mary turned up pregnant. He and she both were afraid, at separate times, when an angel visited them. So were the shepherds. Joseph again, having moved his new family to Egypt to keep Herod from killing their baby, was afraid to move back to Judea.

In other words, the first Christmas wasn’t about the warm and fuzzy, the beautiful lights and winter-scene cards or a warm fire with stockings all hung by the chimney with care. In fact, no presents showed up that first night. Some gawking strangers did, parroting something about good tidings of great joy. All Mary could do was to file it all away to think about later. After all, she had a baby to feed—her first born, and what did she know about being a mother? Might she have been just a little fearful?

Appropriate to this topic are words Jonathan Rogers quoted in his blog post today:

I love Andrew Peterson’s song “Labor of Love,” sung like an angel by Jill Phillips on Behold the Lamb of God, my favorite Christmas album ever. Here’s the first stanza and chorus:

It was not a silent night
There was blood on the ground
You could hear a woman cry
In the alleyways that night
On the streets of David’s town

And the stable was not clean
And the cobblestones were cold
And little Mary full of grace
With the tears upon her face
Had no mother’s hand to hold

It was a labor of pain
It was a cold sky above
But for the girl on the ground in the dark
With every beat of her beautiful heart
It was a labor of love.

But not without fear.

In fact, fear followed Jesus throughout His life. He provided a miraculous catch of fish for Peter and he was afraid. He healed the guy who couldn’t walk, and the whole group of witnesses were afraid. He walked on water and His disciples were afraid. He raised a young man from the dead and the whole crowd was afraid. He kicked out the demons from a possessed man, and everyone in the entire district was afraid.

Actually Jesus seemed to validate their fear. At one point He said, “But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him!” (Luke 12:5). As it turns out, Jesus is that One.

Yes, He is the Judge. Granted, His first appearance as a baby wasn’t to bring judgment. That will come when He returns. Isaiah says the government is on His shoulders. In Revelation it is the Lamb Himself who breaks the seals issuing in the final judgment of the world.

What’s my point. Only that the true Christmas spirit should include reverence. Love, sure. Generosity, joy, gladness, definitely. But worship—the bowing down part of Christmas—shouldn’t be neglected. The events surrounding Jesus’s birth created awe in those who witnessed them. In the same way, we’d do well to look with awe on our Savior. After all, fear is part of the Christmas spirit.

Published in: on December 17, 2010 at 5:30 pm  Comments (4)  

What Makes Fantasy Work, Wrap

I’ve read a few fantasy books whose authors are trying to Imitate Lewis. But there’s a catch: their Christ-figures, a la Aslan, aren’t much like Aslan, much less so the Biblical Christ. Sure, they have all the loving-humble-helpful parts, but few to none of the sovereign-holy-kill-his-enemies parts. And these Christ-equivalents exist, not with their own missions, but mainly as sidekicks for the real hero of the story, the Self-Doubtful Often-Angsty Gifted protagonist, who is on a Quest.

Stephen Burnett penned (typed) those words as part of his post today over at Speculative Faith. Interestingly, those lines state, in part, what I wanted to address today.

Fantasy that works says something important.

There are lots of ways that fantasy can say something important. Stephen particularly addressed the issue of stories with a Christ figure. Not every story written from a Christian worldview needs an allegorical Christ figure, in my opinion. But those that include one have set themselves a huge task.

After all, C. S. Lewis created such a strong character that remained consistent with Christ’s nature, that any other may seem either derivative (there’s that dreaded word again!) or inadequate.

Does that mean we should shy away from showing Christ in Christian fantasy? No, I don’t think so. However, I believe that’s a high goal. If an author sets that high goal, rightly the reader must judge whether or not his story works by whether or not he successfully met the goal.

I tend to think that the problem Stephen mentioned in the quote above—that the Christ figure is a “side-kick”—occurs primarily because some authors back away from the high goal of putting Him meaningfully into a story as Lewis did with Aslan.

One secret here is that Lewis said he was not writing an allegory. Today, I think many Christian fantasy writers are writing an allegorical character, if not an allegory.

What was Lewis doing instead? He termed it “supposal.” In a world with fauns and talking animals and centaurs and dwarfs, Lewis asked, how would God show Himself?

Perhaps that’s the question we fantasy writers need to ask more often rather than forcing Christ-by-another-name into our stories.

But I said earlier that I don’t think stories have to have an allegorical Christ figure to still be Christian.

That doesn’t mean I think a story about not telling a lie is automatically Christian because it contains a moral value consistent with Christianity.

Rather, I believe—and this is quite subjective—stories that “till the soil” can be powerfully Christian. Such stories create the longing for the wholeness Christ gives, or for the acceptance His sacrifice made possible, or for the purpose His relationship frees us to achieve. I believe stories can show sacrificial love that is extraordinary and that will create a thirst for sacrificial love. I believe stories can show forgiveness that is pure and unmerited and it will create a thirst for similar mercy.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Instead of putting God into a story, I think it’s possible to put one of God’s characteristics in a story and show it so clearly that it becomes something that draws people, maybe even causes them to say, Wouldn’t it be great to know someone like that?

Last point. I think the biggest thing we Christian fantasy writers have to be careful about is saying the same thing over and over in the same way. No examples on that one. I’ll let you mull it over for yourself (as I mull it over too 😀 ).

What Makes Fantasy Work, The Continuation Continued

One of the elements that good fantasy needs happens to be part of world building, and it’s one of the genre’s tropes. Fantasy needs magic. I’m using the term loosely. A good number of Christian fantasies don’t have traditional magic. But they do have something mysterious or “other.”

In George Bryan Polivka’s Trophy Chase Trilogy, for example, the only “magical” element was the firefish, and that was enough. It was both mysterious and other—not of this world.

I personally like more magic, not less. I wanted Gandolf to overcome the Balrog and the Hobbits to escape the Black Riders. I wanted the Ents to stir up the trees and the Elves to shield the Hobbits from the Orcs. I wanted the White Tree to provide Gondor with protection and Boromir’s horn to bring the help he needed. I wanted to warn Pippin not to look into the palantir.

The more magic, the more intrigue. Anything can happen, and the reader is left equally to wonder and to worry because the best stories give magic to both sides.

Intrigue leads to the next point. Fantasy that works also has a plot that works. Rule one for a good plot is, Create conflict.

Like other fiction, fantasy is best when the character faces an external conflict and an internal conflict. Ideally the two battles will coalesce at the climax. That’s what J. R. R. Tolkien did so well in The Return of the King. Frodo wasn’t only fighting against Orcs and Sauron and Shelob. He was also fighting against becoming another Gollum.

Shockingly, the latter is the fight he lost. Which brings up another element that makes fantasy work—surprise. I think one of the reasons so much epic fantasy gets criticized is because of a lack of surprise. Readers and reviewers will say a story is “derivative” (the kiss of death to a fantasy) though you never hear that accusation made of romance or even of mystery. I have to believe that what the “derivative” accusers are actually saying is that the story tipped its hand and didn’t hold any surprise.

One of the things that kept me reading furiously through the last three Harry Potter books was the unpredictability. Was Snape good or evil? Would Harry be able to leave the Dursleys and go to live with Sirius Black? Would he win the Triwizard Tournament? Who was trying to kill him during the competiton? Why was he seeing such vivid visions of Voldemort? How would Harry find the horcruxes? And on and on.

Questions create intrigue, twists create surprise, and delay creates suspense. All of these elements, along with conflict, make a fantasy plot work.

There’s still more, I think, so I’ll tackle those last elements another time.

What Makes Fantasy Work, Continued

When I first posed the question, What makes fantasy work, my immediate thought was, an engaging character. That’s when I realized that there might not be so much difference between fantasy and other fiction.

In some of the fantasy I mentioned yesterday that I don’t think is working, I found two problems with the central character—either she/he was nondescript or whiny.

To make a character seem real, he must have a rounded personality. For fallen humanity, that means weaknesses and needs as well as strengths and things to offer others. At times, however, a character weakness can be painted with too much emphasis. I know because I created such a character.

It crushed me at first when members of my critique group told me they hated my main character. Hated him? I loved him. How could they misunderstand him so completely? Yes, he had problems, but don’t all characters? I mean, isn’t that part of the character arc?

That, in a nutshell, is the balancing act authors must achieve—give the character problems but not let him become embittered, sullen, whiny, complaining, slothful.

In some ways, Jonathan Rogers’ Grady in The Charlatan’s Boy is the perfect character. He’s got a problem—he’s an orphan, but that’s not all of it. The only person who knows anything about where he came from is unreliable—worse than unreliable. He twists the truth at will, however it suits him.

But instead of wallowing in self-pity, Grady makes the most of his circumstances. Here’s where the reader sees his real strengths. He’s loyal, hard working, and humble enough to play whatever part is given him.

So the first thing fantasy has to have in order to work is a main character that is believable and engaging.

The second thing, because this is fantasy I’m talking about, is a well-developed, consistent world. This is the aspect J. K. Rowling mastered. If I were to grade her, I might give her a C or C+ for her character. Harry wasn’t particularly believable in the first book because the abuse he suffered at the hands of the Dursleys was over the top. Nor was he particularly engaging. He didn’t whine but neither did he do anything to change his situation.

But the world Rowling created was unbelievable. Well, believably so. I mean, she did such a great job creating a magic place that the story came alive. She paid attention to detail and didn’t overlook anything.

In Hogwarts, food appeared magically on plates, the ceiling in the dining hall changed to appear like the outdoor sky, persons in portraits moved (and moved from their own frame to another’s), persons in newspaper photos moved too, and so did the figures on the cards that came with certain candy. And those chocolate frogs could actually jump away. The students had to be taught how to fly a boom and how to use their wands. And on and on and on. So many little details, everyday things twisted to fit a place where magic was real.

But there’s still more to this “What makes fantasy work” question, so I see I’m going to need another post on the topic. We’ll just say this continuation is to be continued. 😉

What Makes Fantasy Work?

I’ve thought about fantasy a lot as I’ve worked on The Lore of Efrathah. I love fantasy, and a growing number of others do, too. Since Friday I’ve discovered a number of other writers who are hoping for publication or who have already published with a small press or a self-publishing company, all Christian fantasy.

But I’ve also discovered that not every fantasy is equal. As I’ve read some of the snippets or chapter samples, it’s clear to me that some of the stories are ones I might like and others are ones I wouldn’t want cluttering up the bookshelf.

What makes a fantasy work?

In some ways, I think what makes a fantasy work is no different than what makes any other piece of fiction work. But in another way, fantasy aims to accomplish more, so it has more that can go wrong.

I suppose that isn’t quite true. Mystery writers could say that mystery tries to accomplish more because the story tries to create a puzzle that keeps the reader guessing. And romance writers could say that romance tries to accomplish more because the story tries to bring two people together while keeping them apart. Writers of historical fiction could really make a case for their fiction doing more.

In other words, each genre has its own tropes to which the author must adhere, so it isn’t quite as simple as just writing a story. But when I say that fantasy does more, I’m thinking of the depth—the way that the story is only the obvious part of what the writer is saying, not the entire substance.

In C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, for example, Orual’s experiences say much more about Mankind’s spiritual life than about the mistakes of one lonely girl who became queen.

But what makes Lewis’s stories work so well? Why, in fact, are the Narnia stories known around the world but few people have read Till We Have Faces? Of course, the only people I know who have read the latter, count it among their favorites, so I’m not suggesting it doesn’t “work.”

And yet, it’s hard to say it works as well as Narnia. Otherwise, wouldn’t there be as many people who have read it and love it? I suppose we could argue that children’s books have an advantage. Often times, parents who love the books they enjoyed as children, read them aloud to their children, and the love of the books is passed on, as much by the pleasure of the reading aloud experience as by the quality of the stories.

Has anyone read Till We Have Faces aloud to their children lately? I suspect not. It’s not that kind of book.

So I suppose the first thing to realize is that what “works” is somewhat subjective. Yet I can’t help thinking that some of those books I stumbled upon don’t work.

Perhaps the key is to look at what the books were trying to accomplish. The question would then be, did they get it done?

The higher the book aims, the harder it is to reach that goal. Consequently, if a story aims to be a sweet romance as a means of providing a little escape for the reader, then it works if it does just that. But if it aims to be the next Gone with the Wind, the author has set an ambitious goal and her work must be judged based on whether or not she accomplished what she set out to do. If she wrote a sweet romance, albeit a thousand pages long, I’d say she did not meet her goal.

So too with fantasy. But I think I need to pick this up another day and explore the original question a little more.

Published in: on December 13, 2010 at 8:04 pm  Comments (2)  
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Speculative Fiction And Social Media

You may or may not be on Facebook and/or Twitter, but I’ve been hanging out at Facebook for a while now and getting the hang of Twitter slowly but surely.

I see some real advantages to these new forms of communication, the main one being the opportunity to reconnect with people I thought I’d lost track of for good. It’s a kick for me to see pictures of my former students, all grown up now, and to find out where they’re living, who they married, how many kids they have … daily stuff. After all, that’s how we knew each other when I taught them.

Some, I know, do stop by A Christian Worldview of Fiction from time to time, but Facebook allows us to “meet in the hall” and say hi as we used to do. It’s brief and incomplete, to be sure, but still far better than nothing, from my perspective.

And then there are readers who like what I like, or something close to it—fans of fantasy and, more generally, speculative fiction. Some months ago, a handful of us who were writing for the team blog Speculative Faith revived our efforts. We invited new writers to join us and saved Friday for guest bloggers. It’s been a great success.

In addition, our new webmaster set up a Facebook account. For a time, all we did there was link to the blog and invite people to “like” the site.

Then a couple weeks ago, I got the idea to add a daily “Book News” feature. I invited speculative writers to include their book news as they wished if there wasn’t already a news feature posted that day. Or they could send me their news and I’d post it. We’ve had a good response—more people following, more people “liking”—though I think some might be shy about posting their notices.

I have to say, I really like this. Some of you might remember that I’d started a newsletter, Latest In Spec, to pass along news about Christian speculative literature. While it was a good idea, I never made it work the way I envisioned. Too often the “news” was already old by the time it got into the hands of interested people, and to be honest, few people really like to read the personals. That’s what LIS was like.

Now at Spec Faith Facebook, we can include news tidbits in a timely manner. And far more people can become informed since friends of friends may also see the notices.

Today we have another development. CSFF Blog Tour is now on Facebook too. I’m excited about this opportunity to be more visible.

I want to see as many people learn about the tour as possible. I’m constantly finding a pocket of Christian speculative literature fans here and there, many who are still ignorant of the books that are out there for them to enjoy. Any new way of getting the word out is a plus as far as I’m concerned.

Published in: on December 10, 2010 at 6:19 pm  Comments (2)  
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CSFF Tour Wrap – The Charlatan’s Boy

And so another excellent CSFF Blog Tour comes to an end, this one for Jonathan Rogers’ much-enjoyed young adult fantasy, The Charlatan’s Boy (WaterBrook Press). Sixty-three posts, thirty-four blogs, untold number of reviews, a handful of articles on the spiritual aspect of the book, two writing challenges and two discussions of real life charlatans, one look at phrenology! My, this tour uncovered some wonderful material.

Here are the participants who dived in and posted all three days. They are eligible for the December CSFF Top Tour Blogger Award, for which I need your help.

Published in: on December 9, 2010 at 4:28 pm  Comments (1)  
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CSFF Blog Tour – The Charlatan’s Boy, Day 3

I’ve been chatting about the CSFF Blog Tour December feature, The Charlatan’s Boy by Jonathan Rogers (before I forget, if you’re on Facebook, consider sending Dr. Rogers a friend invite), for a number of days now. Or weeks.

Shortly after the book released Dr. Rogers did a guest post at Speculative Faith. Which got me to thinking, and I ended up featuring him in a post on my editing blog—Rewrite, Reword, Rework. About that same time, I used the opening of The Charlatan’s Boy as an example of … voice, I believe it was, in an online writing group of which I’m a member.

And then the tour. There have been such excellent posts, including Donita Paul‘s feechie imagination challenge and Sally Apokedak‘s look at the spiritual aspect of the book. I’ve been busy interacting with any number of bloggers, and enjoying it immensely.

Now it’s time for my review, and in some ways I feel like it’s all been said already, that you all would be best off if you took the tour as I did. And I hope you do. Take a half hour a night and read the posts (you can find the links at the end of Monday’s post). You’ll learn a lot about Jonathan Rogers, the man and the writer, and about his wonderful story. You’ll learn about how a work of fiction can stir deep spiritual thoughts without being conspicuous about it. And you’ll learn what makes so many of this diverse group of bloggers love an unpretentious book marketed for the young adult crowd.

What can I add? My opinion, I guess. (But remember, you get what you pay for. 😀 )

The Story. Grady is an orphan, under the care of a flimflam man named Floyd. Together they travel throughout the island of Corenwald primarily selling as truth a pack of lies. The greatest of these is that Floyd is a feechie expert and Grady is a full grown feechie he’s captured.

Grady is attached to Floyd simply because he’s all the boy has. Floyd, on the other hand, treats Grady mostly like a hired hand, refusing to tell him who he is or where he came from. When interest in the feechie act dries up, the charlatan and his boy try a variety of other routines, none particularly successful.

One day Floyd gets an idea how to revive interest in feechies. Grady happily complies, and their scheme works—up to a point. Instead of giving Grady what he thought he wanted, the outcome of their plot shakes up his world for good.

Strengths. The Charlatan’s Boy is inventive. Words like “civilizer,” “angrified,” and “robustious,” and accompanying unique grammar constructions join with an imaginative world and people to make this story feel like something you’ve never read before.

The novel has a bit of the flavor of Paul Bunyan stories, whoppers told as real events, but there’s a hint of Prydain, too, or maybe Narnia.

At any rate, the book is a wonderful blend, one Sally Apokedak has called Frontier Fantasy. It’s the perfect term, I think.

The characters are every bit as strong as the inventiveness. Grady is lovable, sadly so because he wants so much to fit somewhere in the world he knows, but Floyd holds him at arms distance, at best. More than anything, I wanted to keep reading because I wanted to know what would happen to Grady next and in particular if he would ever find what he needed.

The story is really an exploration of the human heart, so there is a lot of universal truth between the covers—about truth and lies, belonging and love. Without a doubt, Dr. Rogers’ look at these timeless issues is from a Christian perspective, so it lends itself to Christian interpretation, whether intentional or not.

Weaknesses. No, I don’t think it’s a perfect book, but it’s well on the way. 😉 First, I thought a few chapters wandered about a bit. Some reviewers termed the story “episodic” and it was to an extent in the early part. Once Floyd and Grady settled on a scheme to revive their feechie act, the plot coalesced nicely and the pace picked up.

As much depth as a number of bloggers have found in the book, I can’t help wondering if the gold they uncovered isn’t partly a result of their writing about the story. In other words, I think if the truth that many uncovered had been woven throughout the story intentionally, it would have been that much stronger.

Will the average reader notice either of these areas? Probably not. I think they will more than likely be as delighted by the book as I was.

Recommendation. A must read for fantasy lovers. A must read for those looking for a read-aloud book. A must read for those who want to discover quality literature. A must read for those who want a fun yet touching story about an engaging character.

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

Published in: on December 8, 2010 at 5:44 pm  Comments (6)  
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CSFF Blog Tour – The Charlatan’s Boy, Day 2

The CSFF crew is an eclectic bunch. We are writers and moms, businessmen and seminary students. Some prefer science fiction, others fantasy. Our ages span generations, from teens to grandparents, and our inclinations vary from middle grade novels to young adult and adult. Some of us look for strong Christian themes in our stories. Others look primarily for good stories.

Because we’re so diverse, I find CSFF tours fascinating. Nearly every post has something thought-provoking to say, but more often than not, various ones of us see something in the featured book less to our liking whereas others find it altogether enjoyable.

We’re currently focusing on The Charlatan’s Boy by Jonathan Rogers (WaterBrook), and I have to say, I have read some of the most delightful posts.

Sarah Sawyer explored some of the famous charlatans in order to give the story some background. Sally Apokedak considered the ways in which the story is both like and different from C. S. Lewis and Mark Twain—the two authors endorser Andrew Peterson compared Dr. Rogers to.

Perhaps one of the best posts is Beckie Burnham‘s interview with Dr. Rogers’ sister Melanie, giving us insights into the author we won’t find anywhere else on the web. But we also can enjoy an interview with the author himself over at Julie’s Own Little Corner of the World.

One of the funniest posts Dr. Rogers generated himself by issuing CSFF member Fred Warren a challenge. The results are side-splitting in places.

Others wrote reviews, a number have linked to the hilarious Feechie Film Festival, as I did at Speculative Faith in my look at how J. R. R. Tolkien’s creation of hobbits has similarities to Jonathan Rogers’ creation of feechies.

But here’s the thing. So far—and we still have more than a day to go in the tour—I haven’t read a single “I didn’t like it” post. There might be some coming, mind you. We are an eclectic bunch, as I said, and I wouldn’t be surprised or even disappointed. In fact, the diversity of opinion, I believe, gives CSFF credibility. We really aren’t spouting a party line. No one tells us what we should think about a book. We give our genuine opinion.

So if a diverse group of readers comes together and genuinely praises a book and a writer—not that we’re there yet—what does that tell you?

I reach two conclusions. It is possible for a writer to do such a good job he/she captures readers from all strata (I think that’s called “breaking out”). And secondly, this writer is capable of doing just that.

Published in: on December 7, 2010 at 4:00 pm  Comments (2)  
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CSFF Blog Tour – The Charlatan’s Boy, Day 1, Are Feechies Real?

The December feature of the CSFF Blog Tour is The Charlatan’s Boy by Jonathan Rogers (WaterBrook). While this story is a young adult fantasy standalone, it takes place in the same world created by Rogers in his Wilderking Trilogy—the island of Corenwald.

Consequently, the idea that feechies exist has been developed in the earlier books. Now, in this later story, the people of Corenwald have begun to doubt that feechies are real.

Interestingly, I found parallels with our contemporary world in which a good portion of society has come to believe that angels and demons and God Himself are myth.

Coupled with the disbelieving public in The Charlatan’s Boy is the group of con artists who wish to capitalize on their doubt. One of the main characters touts himself as a “feechie expert,” and makes money showing a “real feechie” while he gives a lecture on their habits. His credentials? He claims to have lived among the feechies for two years.

I find that approach eerily similar to false teachers today who claim to have special knowledge about God or angels or the spirit world because of some experience they had.

Ironically, the more these false teachers “testify,” the more the populace at large doubts.

And so it was in The Charlatan’s Boy. After some time, traveling from place to place, delivering lectures as a feechie expert, the charlatan decides he needs a new gig because the people no longer believe in feechies.

But what if feechies are real and they have chosen to stay away from the public? What if they see civilizers as hostile to their way of life, to their very existence? What if they stay hidden because they don’t want to be put on display and paraded around as some bit of entertainment, some magic show? What if they don’t want to be forced to become something they are not?

I can’t help but wonder if the absence of angelic activity in our western civilization might not stem from similar reasons. Might not the lifestyle of contemporary America be hostile to the message and ministry of angels? If we could “capture” an angel, I have to think that a good number of people would be working feverishly on the “problem” of how to maximize their return. What movies would we make? What ancillary products would be developed? What imitation stories would crop up? What “experts” would take center stage to tell all they know?

But would such activity increase our belief? Or would we see fraud at every level and conclude that the existence of spirits is a hoax?

I can’t help but think the latter might have already happened.

For the rest of the CSFF Blog Tour, look for content centered more specifically on our feature, The Charlatan’s Boy. For today, learn more about it by visiting other tour participants:

Each check mark links to a blog tour post.

Published in: on December 6, 2010 at 1:33 pm  Comments (10)  
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