Christian Fiction Must Be . . . You Know, Christian; Or, The Shack Is Back


This past week, I saw the TV add for the upcoming The Shack movie. I’d seen the trailer some time ago, but was dismayed that the promotion was reaching a TV audience. And in LA. We don’t often hear about “Christian” projects here.

There’s no doubt that The Shack positions itself as Christian. After all, Jesus shows up, albeit in imaginary form. But is it Christian?

What constitutes “Christian fiction”? That’s a question we at Spec Faith have answered and revisited since our inception some ten years ago (see for example this early post by one of the founding members of Spec Faith).

Not only have writers and readers debated what constitutes Christian fiction, and particularly Christian speculative fiction, we’ve debated the rightness of and the need for good doctrine in our fiction (see for example “Reading Choices: Realism, Truth, And The Bible“). “Doctrine” encompasses both theology and beliefs concerning morality, and we’ve discussed those too (see for example “Marcher Lord Press and the Hinterlands Imprint“).

On top of these generalized discussions, we’ve also posted articles and comments specifically about The Shack. But that was eight years ago, when the book was still on the top of best-selling lists and Christians and non-Christians alike were passing it around from one person to another and discussing it over coffee.

Now the movie version of Paul Young’s book is about to come to a theater near you, and the question no one could answer back then is bound to resurface: Is The Shack truly Christian?

There are some specific issues that came under scrutiny concerning the book.

Some people stumbled over the most glaring issue right from the gate. I mean, isn’t it blasphemous to depict God the Father as anything but a Father?

I understand how portraying God as other than how He portrays Himself, can be troublesome. At the same time, I can see how others accept “God’s” explanation: that He needed to reveal Himself to the main character in a way he could receive Him.

That being said, I suggest one of the central problems of the story surfaces within the discussion of this rather peripheral issue. The Shack has little use for the Bible. Hence, God the Father is easily replaced by the needs of the character.

There are other major issues—the attitude toward the Church and universal salvation and an understanding of the Trinity.

Yet more than one Christian has reported how life changing The Shack was for them, how they wept as they read it, how they understood God’s forgiveness in a way they never had before.

So . . . is it Christian?

Can it be Christian if it shows God in ways He does not show Himself? If it does not point people to His word or His body, the Church? If it falsely claims universal salvation?

On the other hand, how can it not be Christian if it gave many believers renewed faith and deeper love for God and a deeper understanding of forgiveness?

On one hand, The Shack may not tick all the intellectual, theological boxes, but on the other, it more than makes up for that lack by the emotional, spiritual juice it provides.

In thinking about the “what makes something Christian” question, I have to look at the object itself, not the results that may come from it.

The Apostle Paul did just the opposite when he was imprisoned in Philippi and a bunch of so-called Christian brethren started preaching. Paul identified their motives as envy and strife and selfish ambition (Phil. 1:15, 17), but he basically said, so what? As long as they preached Christ, who cared that they had bad motives?

the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice. (vv 17-18a)

Paul was only concerned with the bottom line: the result. These “brethren,” false or true, were telling people about Jesus.

So, isn’t that the best test? Shouldn’t we be applauding The Shack, if the movie is successful, because it is bringing people to Christ?

I said above that I have to look at the object itself, because my question is, Is The Shack truly Christian? Lots of things can bring people to Christ. War has been known to do so. A friend of mine came to Christ by reading a novel. Others look at the heavens and know they need to find the One who made them. After 9/11, here in the US any number of people turned to God in the midst of their fear and uncertainty.

Would we say war is “Christian” because some soldiers reported coming to Christ when faced with their own mortality? No, certainly not. God can and does use whatever means He wishes, but His use of the thing does not baptize it as emblematic of His Good News.

So I reject the idea that The Shack must be Christian because people report a deeper relationship with God after having read it.

When Paul talked about those so-called brethren in Philippi, he gave no indication that they were preaching anything but what was true about Christ. Elsewhere, however, he addressed those who were not preaching the truth.

For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds. (2 Cor. 11:13-15)

In writing to the Galatians he also brought up the matter:

But it was because of the false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage. (Gal 2:4)

Clearly, Paul was not hesitant to call out those who were not preaching the gospel but who were masquerading as if they were fellow believers. The same is true throughout the Bible about false teachers and false prophets. Jesus Himself made some of the strongest statements about “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” about false prophets misleading many, even about false Christs.

So determining who is and who isn’t a Christian, what is and what isn’t true Christian teaching, seems like an important aptitude.

Yet I know people will hold back for fear of judging. We aren’t supposed to judge each other, are we?

We’re not.

But that doesn’t mean we’re to put our brains on hold, either. We can still think. We can still look at the story on the screen and compare it with what the Bible says. Which is, after all, the unchanging, authoritative Truth by which we know what “Christian” means.

This article is a re-post of the one I published today at Speculative Faith.

Published in: on February 20, 2017 at 5:45 pm  Comments (1)  
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Standing Up For Magic


magic-book
Several speculative writers (E. Stephen Burnett at Speculative Faith, for one) have been looking at the subject of magic from the vantage point of Christians trusting something other than God and His word in their pursuit of righteousness—including their efforts to controvert magic. As a result, some in this camp take a stand against speculative fiction, whether from a Christian or not, that includes magic.

I’m convinced that those who would blackball a work of fiction for including magic are in the minority, but I don’t think it hurts to take another look at the subject. Here’s a reprise of an article that examines magic using the lens of the Bible.

– – – – –

Some time ago I had a discussion with a Christian who considers much of speculative fiction to be opposed to the Bible. I’ve only had a few encounters with people who hold this view, though other writers have spoken of being surrounded by such folk.

The exchange reminds me that it’s wise to confront this attitude head-on, with Scripture, starting with the fundamental question some ask: how does a Christian fantasy writer handle magic since magic is intrinsically un-Christian.

Interesting.

Here’s the first definition for magic in the Oxford American Dictionaries: “the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.”

My question, then is, Do we Christians not consider God “supernatural”? But … but…but … Someone may well say God’s work is miraculous, not magic. And the Oxford American Dictionaries would agree that God’s work is miraculous: “occurring through divine or supernatural intervention, or manifesting such power.”

But isn’t miraculous simply a more narrowed term, specifically referencing the divine? Magic, on the other hand, does not exclude the divine.

However, I don’t want to get too caught up in semantics. Let’s agree that the Bible does warn against magic and witchcraft and other sorts of divination sought from powers other than God Himself.

In contrast, God’s powerful works are called miraculous and prophetic.

The point that is noteworthy for fantasy writers and readers, however, is this: the Bible makes it clear that both God and Satan have power. Not in equal measure. Satan is no more omnipotent than he is omnipresent, though I suspect he’d like Man to think he is both.

Make no mistake. God’s power trumps Satan’s, and it’s not even a fair comparison. Satan may not get this because it seems he keeps trying to go up against God, as if he can outmaneuver Wisdom or out-muscle Omnipotence.

Be that as it may, we can’t deny that he has power and it is supernatural—beyond Man’s abilities. Pharaoh had his magicians and so did Nebuchadnezzar, and seemingly they were used to these conjurers producing what normal folk could not. Their power was not from God, however.

Moses, with the rod of God, went head to head with Pharaoh’s magicians, if you recall, and God’s power dominated. Nebuchadnezzar’s sorcerers could not tell their king his dream, let alone the interpretation of it, but God’s man, Daniel, could.

But back to fantasy. If supernatural power—good and evil—is real, then why should Christian fantasy writers pretend that the evil forces in their stories don’t have real supernatural power? Why should we pretend that those siding with good have no supernatural power?

Fantasy, after all, gives a story-long metaphor for the real world. Why would we want to give Christians—young adults or adults—the idea that there isn’t actually supernatural power of any kind by doing away with magic in our stories?

It seems to me it’s important to address the source of power and the reality of power and the proper attitude toward power—all of which fantasy can address. Unless, of course, a Christian story must be scrubbed clean of supernatural power.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in 2010 and was republished in August 2013.

Morality In Fiction


Reading_Jane_EyreIn response to “Fiction Isn’t Lying”, a number of people, here and at Facebook, said they had experience with people who thought of fiction as a form of lying. Once again I was shocked. The thrust of the article, however, dealt with the Christian’s responsibility to speak truthfully about God in our fiction.

I’ll say again, Christians do not have to speak about God, directly or indirectly, but should we choose to do so, we have an imperative to be truthful. But “truthful” doesn’t mean we must tell all about God. First, it’s not possible to do so, and second, so much theology would overwhelm the story so that it would cease being a story.

I’m convinced that many readers and writers alike stumble over theology in stories because they confuse it with moral teaching. Two years ago I wrote a short series about that issue, and I’m re-posting the concluding article which sums up more completely than the final paragraph in yesterday’s article, what I believe about morality versus theology in fiction. Here is that article:

– – – – –

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

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

Later I added

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

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

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

But is it sufficient for the needs of society?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There but for the grace of God are we all.

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

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

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

Fiction Isn’t Lying . . . Until It Is


booksSome Christians, apparently, don’t think it’s OK to read fiction because fiction is all about made up characters, places, and events. In other words, it’s all lies.

I had never heard that point of view until I got on the Internet, and then mostly other writers said they’d been confronted by others who chastised them for their lies. I did read a post once by someone who took that extreme position, but it was new to me.

For one thing, appealing to the definition of lie explodes that view, the key being the intention of deception. No one who writes fiction pretends their story is factual. No one who reads fiction is unaware that the story is pretend. So no one is deceiving or being deceived. So fiction isn’t lying.

In addition, authors of fiction use the pretend to make statements about reality. In all my literature classes throughout college, we analyzed stories to determine, among other things, what the author was saying, what he wanted readers to take away or to believe about humankind or the world or God. Thomas Hardy, for example, wrote stories to show that humankind is pushed and pulled by fate. On the other hand, Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol which showed that a person can change his ways and isn’t locked into beliefs by chance circumstances.

Those two views which are in opposition to one another can hardly both be true. One might be truthful or they both might be false, but they both can’t be true.

It’s still probably incorrect to say that one which is not truthful is therefore a lie. I’m certain Thomas Hardy believed he was truthfully showing readers the way the world worked, but he was wrong. In his made up stories Hardy revealed his own belief system, one that replaced God with the ‘unconscious will of the Universe’ (see Wikipedia).

My question is this: ought not a Christian writer who knows the truth, reflect truth in any story he or she writes? I want to be clear: I do not think any story can tell ALL truth. For one thing, we don’t have all truth. The Bible, though complete, doesn’t show us all there is to know about God. It is our view of the world through that dark mirror I Corinthians 13 mentions. Second, ALL truth would not fit into one story, even one the size of The Grapes of Wrath or Gone With The Wind.

So what “truth” is a novelist supposed to show in his or her story?

That’s the beauty of writing. An author can open the door for readers regarding all kinds of important truths.

I’m thinking of one novel, for instance, a fantasy, in which the God of that world was worshiped by both factions in an owner/slave society. Both believe this God figure provides for them. Which brings up all kinds of interesting questions: does God provide for the wicked as well as for the victimized? Are those enslaved believing in this God in vain? Is the ruling class worshiping in hypocrisy? Is there anything similar going on in our world?

I could go on to discuss ways in which a novelist can show truth by developing their theme, but the point I want to make is this: a Christian writer, while not burdened to show all truth (an impossibility, but an attempt at such would clearly necessitate the entire plan of salvation), should show truth.

Of course it’s possible to leave out any direct reference to God and still show truth. J. R. R. Tolkien did that. He had Christ figures, but not a direct reference to God or to Jesus.

What Tolkien did not do was mislead people about those Christ figures. He did not have Gandalf decide to take the One Ring for himself. He did not have Aragon desert the forces of Gondor. The one who would sacrifice himself for the fellowship did not turn evil. The returning king did not forsake those who trusted him.

Thus, what an author chooses to show about truth is really up to him, but he must do so faithfully. He would be lying to portray God or a God figure in his world to be selfish or greedy or blood-thirsty or immoral or weak. Any of those would be a lie. A Christian who knows God must portray some truth about Him if He or a representative figure shows up in the story.

Non-Christians who turn God into an it with an unconscious will or who make Him out to be evil, as I understand Phillip Pullman did in his fantasy series, aren’t lying about God in the same way a Christian who knows the truth would be. Rather, they have rejected God and are trying to make sense of the world without Him. They are more to be pitied, though readers must beware so they see the ways their views deviate from the truth.

In short, the Christian is really the only one who can lie in fiction. We know the truth. If we purposely misrepresent God, how can that be thought of as anything but a lie?

Does Theology Have A Place In Fiction?


ArtistThe discussion about theology in fiction is not new, but agent Chip MacGregor brought it up again in a recent blog post, and it’s received some traction in social media. I’ll admit, parts of what Chip said drive me crazy. Things like

[many authors have tried to] take their stories to the broader general market… and it hasn’t been working. Why? First, understand that much of CBA fiction is dominated by the conservative evangelical brand of Christianity, and the general market isn’t interested in those types of stories.

“Those types of stories”? Stories that hold to what the Bible says? I have much to say on that subject but will save it for another time.

Then a few sentences later:

A writer who grows up in the evangelical culture, who is surrounded by the American evangelical milieux, often isn’t going to know how to speak to a broader audience.

I think the error of that generality is self-evident. But the line that has me most concerned is this:

There is a movement among many Christian novelists to make fiction more realistic and less theological

So, God isn’t realistic enough, we need to stop including Him in our fiction?

All this as a way of introduction. I’ve written quite a bit about the intersection of fiction as art and Christianity, and I’d like to share (with revisions) some of those thoughts, first posted at Speculative Faith back in December 2012.

A rather accepted definition of art, including fiction, is an endeavor which utilizes creativity and imagination resulting in beauty and truth. Not beauty alone. Not truth alone. Art shows both. In a post at Spec Faith, author and friend Mike Duran postulated that fiction and theology don’t belong together: “Why Fiction Is The Wrong Vehicle For Theology.” He quoted a pastor who affirmed this definition of art but who also stated, “The purpose of art, and even religious art, isn’t to proselytize, or to affirm a body of doctrine.”

As I understand it, doctrine is nothing more than a body of truth about spiritual things. So we want truth in our fiction, but not spiritual truth. How can this dichotomy exist?

Perhaps we are defining terms differently, starting with “theology.” The Oxford English Dictionary’s first definition of theology is “the study of the nature of God and religious belief.” The second definition, however, includes the idea of ordering beliefs systematically. Perhaps, then, those who say “theology” and fiction don’t mix are actually saying fiction isn’t a good place for expounding an ordered system of beliefs.

Then, too, the issue might center on the “body of doctrine”—stories that attempt to reveal all truth about God rather than revealing a truth about God.

First, stories have long espoused or refuted a systematic, ordered way of thinking. Thomas Hardy espoused his views of fatalism in story after story. George Orwell showed his opposition to autocracy, particularly to Communism, in his novels, most notably Animal Farm. Frank Norris and other “muckrakers” made their views about the abuses of corporations known through their stories. Harriet Beecher Stowe penned a novel against slavery—clearly taking a systematic view of the way the world ought to be.

More recently the movie Avatar echoed a theme about greed in corporate America found decades ago in ET.

Is the problem, then, an ordered, systematic set of beliefs? I hardly think so. A system of beliefs has never been considered out of bounds in fiction.

More to the point might be the idea that fiction should not attempt to show an entire body of doctrine because the scope of such is too big for a single story. As I see it, this statement is similar to saying, no book should try to tackle all there is to know about the human psyche. Of course not. However, that does not mean an author should refrain from dealing with any part of the human psyche.

Rather than shying away from the depiction of “theology”—by which I mean knowledge about God—in fiction, I think Christian writers should embrace the challenge. In saying this, however, I do not believe all stories must show all the truth contained in the Bible, nor do I believe that our stories must affirm all Biblical moral values (as if Christians even agree on what those are).

I do believe, however, that it is possible to speculate about this world and about the spiritual world and yet remain faithful to truth about God. In fact, I believe this is fundamental to a work of art. Non-Christians can reveal truth up to a point, but because they do not know Christ, they cannot accurately reveal spiritual truth. Christians can.

Will the spiritual truth in a story ever be “complete”? Of course not. Mike Duran asked in his post

is it possible for any single work of fiction to accurately depict God’s nature, attributes, and laws? He is merciful, holy, infinite, just, compassionate, omniscient, omnipresent, loving, gracious, etc., etc. So where do we start in our portrayal of God? And if we resign our story to just highlighting one attribute of God or one theological side, we potentially present an imbalanced view (like those who always emphasize God’s love and not His judgment, or vice versa). Furthermore, Christians have the luxury of the Bible and centuries of councils and theologians to help us think through this issue. But when Christians impose this body of info upon their novels, they must remember that other readers don’t possess such detailed revelation. . .not to mention the story’s characters.

In essence he says, the body of truth about God is beyond the scope of one novel. Absolutely true. However, the idea that we might be misunderstood if we portray only one aspect of truth or that others without our understanding of Scripture and church history might not grasp what we are “imposing” on them, doesn’t seem like a sound argument for steering away from using stories as a vehicle for theology.

It does seem like an argument for doing so poorly.

If an author incorporates all the tenets of evolution in a story, undoubtedly the message will overwhelm the plot and characters. In other words, over reaching is the problem. A theme that is poorly executed—whether by an atheist or a Christian—suffers, not because of the author’s beliefs or his decision to incorporate them in his story. It suffers because it hasn’t been done well. (Of course, the atheist has the added burden of weaving into his story a theme that may be incomplete or even untrue, but that’s another subject).

Think for a moment about people who wish to “witness” at football games by holding up a John 3:16 sign and contrast that to a sermon expounding on the meaning of that verse. A story is not a sermon, but a story that tacks on a verse in an off-handed way as if doing so fulfills a touched-that-base religious requirement, is a weak story, not because it has introduced theology but because it has done so with no depth and with no purpose that serves the story.

In short, fiction is the perfect vehicle for showing theology rather than telling it. After all, spiritual truth is the ultimate truth. If art is to really be all about beauty and truth, then it OUGHT to include spiritual truth at some level.

The legitimate problems with some Christian fiction have little to do with the existence of theology in fiction and everything to do with how to incorporate it into stories. Instead of warning people away from theology in fiction, I think we’d be better served to spread the word about the novels that handle spiritual truth by weaving it seamlessly into an entertaining story.

Published in: on July 20, 2015 at 5:56 pm  Comments (17)  
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Affecting Culture Through Stories


HollywoodStreetPreachingHow important are stories? Next to actual Bible study, I suggest they are the most powerful teaching tools available.

Way back when—more than twenty years ago—I read a book by Gary Smalley (which, it turns out, was re-released several years ago) entitled The Language of Love. In that book, Smalley suggested a communication technique that would especially help women reach men, not with abstract information but at the heart level. The technique, in essence is, to tell a story.

After reading that book, I began to see ways in which our culture has been and is being shaped by the stories we embrace. Changes in attitudes toward a particular moral idea often follow the gradual changes in depicting the topic in the media. (The typical pattern is first to make a joke about the subject until joking about it is normative; then joking changes to acceptance and open discussion; acknowledgment, especially of the rights an individual has in connection to the subject then morphs to an attitude of “everyone does it” or “they’re just like us.” This pattern is evident in things such as the attitudes toward pornography and homosexuality).

I was reminded of this by two unrelated sources. One, a letter from a US-based ministry, quoted statistics published in the AARP magazine (that’s for seniors), including questions like, “Do you believe in God, in heaven, in hell?” The startling thing for me was this report:

There was a sizeable number of individuals who believed in a second time around. 23% believed in reincarnation (50 years ago the % would have been 1.)

Now for the second source. In a blog post including information from an interview about the non-fiction book, Rethinking Worldview author Mark Bertrand said this:

After all, the average Christian has been much more profoundly influenced by non-Christian art and entertainment than he has by non-Christian evangelism and apologetics.

That line made total sense as I thought about the 22% of our population who have converted to belief in reincarnation, without people standing on the street corners handing out tracts about it. Or holding reincarnation tent meetings.

Mind you, I am not against these kinds of evangelism tools in the hands of Christians. The point is, persuasion often comes in more subtle ways—through pop culture, through art, through literature.

I’ve ranted before about the “innocent” little Disney movie that so many Christians embraced, The Lion King, in which many New Age teachings were front and center. Shortly thereafter (at least here in SoCal), makeshift shrines began to appear on the street when someone died, followed with claims that “I know my deceased ____ is watching over me/helping me/looking down on me.” I’ve heard such anti-biblical comments from people who claim to be Christians. And maybe are.

The point is, the culture, and story in particular, has had a greater influence on forming belief about death and the afterlife than has the Bible and preaching about the subject. Well, to be fair, maybe not a greater influence. After all, the reincarnation number is still not the majority.

Sadly, however, only 29% believed they would go to Heaven because of a belief in Jesus Christ, though 88% said they believed THEY would go to heaven. Clearly, our culture is an eclectic hodge-podge of false teaching, with truth mixed in.

And how can we sort through the sludge to show the gospel? Next to Bible study and good expository Bible teaching in church, I tend to think stories can be the most effective tools.

With some minor revision, this post first appeared here in September 2007.

Exploring Horror Or Exploring Light


300x179xthe-walking-dead-s4-e16-zombies-636-380-300x179.jpg.pagespeed.ic.35AUmep_fuWhen I first heard the term “Christian horror,” I laughed. I thought the person was kidding. I mean, how could blood and psycho-killers and hauntings and demon possession be Christian? Since then I’ve learned that some serious writers—including some Christians—believe horror fiction holds a necessary place in understanding evil, and therefore confronting it.

A number of years ago, for example, author Brian Godawa posted a three-part apology for Christian horror at Speculative Faith. More recently author and friend Mike Duran has published Christian Horror:On the Compatibility of a Biblical Worldview and the Horror Genre.

While I’ve moved from a hard stance against horror (I insisted that the genre existed to accomplish one thing—produce fear), conceding that some writers and readers confront evil and explore how to counter it through fiction, I’m far from holding the view that horror is “must read” fiction for Christians, that to turn away from an exploration of evil is to isolate ourselves from the reality of the world in which we live.

I expressed my thoughts in a post at Spec Faith nearly four years ago, ideas to which I still hold. The following is a slightly revised version of that post.

Author Anne Rice, best known for her vampire fiction and her conversions to and from Christianity, has stated that her vampire books were actually explorations of the spiritual. Spiritual light or spiritual darkness?

Some may say that an exploration of spiritual darkness must precede any look at spiritual light. I suppose this might be one of those areas that differ from person to person, but I can’t help but wonder why we Christians aren’t exploring the light more than we are the darkness.

Corrie ten Boom

Certainly darkness is in the world. Yet when I think of darkness, some of the most uplifting, true stories I’ve read come to mind. Take Corrie ten Boom, for example. Without a doubt, her story contains horrific elements, including the inhuman conditions in a Nazi concentration camp and the death of her dear sister as a result.

But throughout, from the decision to help Jews, to Corrie’s release from the camp and her subsequent commitment to show the love and forgiveness of God to victim and victimizer alike, the story is infused with hope and promise and the sovereign hand of God over all circumstances.

Elisabeth Elliot

The story of Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Roger Youderian, and Pete Fleming is similar. These young missionaries, so committed to sharing the gospel with a group of people who had never heard of Jesus, died at the hands of the people they wanted to save. More astounding, Jim’s wife Elisabeth and Nate’s wife Rachel returned to the tribe, lived with them for two years, and saw many come to Christ. The forgiveness and love these women lived out in the midst of tragedy and loss is a revelation of God’s love and forgiveness.

Joni Eareckson Tada’s story is equally inspirational. Injured as a seventeen year old, Joni has lived as a quadriplegic for forty-eight years.

Joni Eareckson Tada

Despite her disability, she shines the love of Jesus into the lives of hundreds of thousands through her writing, painting, and speaking. She has even put out a vocal recording and starred in the video of her life story. Perhaps her greatest work has been establishing Joni and Friends, an international disability center bringing hope and help to people throughout the world.

Hope. That seems to be a key thread that runs through these stories of triumph over tragedy. The darkness is very real in each one—Joni’s despair, the deaths of the missionaries and Corrie’s sister, the brutality of the Nazis—but triumph dominates the story.

The Hiding Place is not the story about Corrie’s sister dying but about God’s love and forgiveness manifested in an unspeakably cruel place.

Through Gates of Splendor is not a story about five twenty-something missionary men being killed but about the truth in this verse of the hymn from which the title of the book came:

We rest on Thee, our Shield and our Defender.
Thine is the battle, Thine shall be the praise;
When passing through the gates of pearly splendor,
Victors, we rest with Thee, through endless days.

Joni is not the story of a seventeen-year-old whose life caved in, but of a God who brings meaning and purpose out of suffering.

You might wonder why I’m taking a look at all these true stories in a post about speculative fiction. I see how inspirational the lives of these three who suffered greatly have been. They personally explored the light in the midst of the darkness of their real circumstances. The result has been phenomenal. They have pointed generations of people to Christ.

Why, then, would a fiction writer not want to adopt this model — an exploration of light in the midst of darkness? Why go the other route and spend pages and pages exploring the dark, even if the light comes filtering in at the end?

I personally (and remember what I said at the beginning of this post about us all being different) find hope and help to be what I want to read. Darkness, I already know. Hope and help in the midst of darkness is compelling. Why aren’t more Christian speculative novels exploring the light?

It seems to me we are becoming fixated with what is true to the human experience, and as a result we are not setting our “mind on things above” (Col. 3:2). Do we think we know all there is to know about God, so we don’t need to focus on Him as much as we do the depravity and corruption sin causes?

Darkness will be a part of fiction, I believe. But I also see there are two ways of looking at it. In one case, stories seem to explore the darkness, in the other they seem to explore the light that triumphs over the darkness. This latter type is the kind of story I like to read and I want to write.

Christy Award Finalists


ReadingThe Christy Award finalists were announced today. I know that awards like this can easily leave out some of the best books—they might be independently published or the publisher chose not to invest in submitting a particular novel. All kinds of reasons.

Still, there’s no doubt these books deserve to go on a list of novels readers should consider buying. I mean, first an agent chose to represent the author, then an acquisitions editor took the manuscript to the publishing board, they decided to publish it, a substantive and a copy editor each worked with the author on it, then Christy judges chose it to be included with the other finalists. That’s a lot of people in the writing profession who believed in these books.

So why not consider adding them to your to be read list? I mean, this is the end of April, which means May is just around the corner. And we all know what follows May: SUMMER!!

You need good books during the summer to take with you on that vacation or to read when all your friends are away on vacation.

With all that in mind, here is the list of finalists:

CONTEMPORARY

Farewell, Four Waters by Kate McCord (RiverNorth, an imprint of Moody Publishing)
Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good by Jan Karon (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)
The Story Keeper by Lisa Wingate (Tyndale House Publishers)

CONTEMPORARY ROMANCE

A Broken Kind of Beautiful by Katie Ganshert (WaterBrook Multnomah)
Firewall by DiAnn Mills (Tyndale House Publishers)
Undetected by Dee Henderson (Bethany House Publishers, a division of Baker Publishing Group)

CONTEMPORARY SERIES

The Amish Blacksmith by Mindy Starns Clark and Susan Meissner (Harvest House Publishers)
Home to Chicory Lane by Deborah Raney (Abingdon Press)
When I Fall in Love by Susan May Warren (Tyndale House Publishers)

FIRST NOVEL

Feast for Thieves by Marcus Brotherton (RiverNorth, an imprint of Moody Publishing)
For Such a Time by Kate Breslin (Bethany House Publishers, a division of Baker Publishing Group)
House of Living Stones by Kate Schuermann (Concordia Publishing House)

HISTORICAL

The Advocate by Randy Singer (Tyndale House Publishers)
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (Viking)
The Sentinels of Andersonville by Tracy Groot (Tyndale House Publishers)

HISTORICAL ROMANCE

A Beauty So Rare by Tamera Alexander (Bethany House Publishers, a division of Baker Publishing Group)
Thief of Glory by Sigmund Brouwer (WaterBook Multnomah)
With Every Breath by Elizabeth Camden (Bethany House Publishers, a division of Baker Publishing Group)

SUSPENSE

The Color of Justice by Ace Collins (Abingdon Press)
A Cry from the Dust by Carrie Stuart Parks (Thomas Nelson, a division of Harper Collins Christian Publishing)
Sky Zone by Creston Mapes (David C Cook)

VISIONARY [Also known as speculative fiction: fantasy, science fiction, fairy tale, futuristic, etc.]

Once Beyond a Time by Ann Tatlock (Heritage Beacon Fiction)
Shadow Hand by Anne Elisabeth Stengl (Bethany House Publishers, a division of Baker Publishing Group)
A Time to Die by Nadine Brandes (Enclave Publishing)

YOUNG ADULT

Failstate: Nemesis by John W. Otte (Enclave Publishing)
This Quiet Sky by Joanne Bischof (Independently Published)
Storm Siren by Mary Weber (Thomas Nelson, a division of Harper Collins Christian Publishing)

Published in: on April 21, 2015 at 6:14 pm  Comments (2)  
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Fantasy Friday – Cover Reveal


Well, I didn’t officially get added to the list of bloggers who are part of this cover reveal, but I’ve participated in the past and wanted to join in this time, too, even if in an unofficial capacity. So here it is!

Draven'sLightCover

Anne Elisabeth Stengl is a talented writer. She won Christy Awards with three of her first five novels and was the Clive Staples Award winner in 2013 with Starflower. I’ll tell you a bit more about Anne Elisabeth in a bit, but here’s the intro to the newest story in the Tales of Goldstone Wood series.

In the Darkness of the Pit
The Light Shines Brightest

Drums summon the chieftain’s powerful son to slay a man in cold blood and thereby earn his place among the warriors. But instead of glory, he earns the name Draven, “Coward.” When the men of his tribe march off to war, Draven remains behind with the women and his shame. Only fearless but crippled Ita values her brother’s honor.

The warriors return from battle victorious yet trailing a curse in their wake. One by one the strong and the weak of the tribe fall prey to an illness of supernatural power. The secret source of this evil can be found and destroyed by only the bravest heart.

But when the curse attacks the one Draven loves most, can this coward find the courage he needs to face the darkness?

Intriguing, I can hear many say, but I haven’t read any of the previous Tales of Goldstone Wood. I’d be confused. Who comes into a series around book 8?

It’s an understandable argument. But I have it on good authority that it’s not too late for anyone to jump into the series. First, I read Anne Elisabeth’s previous novella, Goddess Tithe, which was a stand alone, not dependent upon any of the previous books, though one or two characters would be familiar to those who have read the ones that came before.

In addition, you still have time before Draven’s Light comes out to read Golden Daughter which is reportedly a perfect “entry book” into the world of Goldstone Wood.

And now the goodies: you can read an excerpt of the novella/short novel AND enter a give-away to win one of three Advance Readers Copies. Third, you can now pre-order this book, scheduled to release in May.

But I promised you a bit more information about the author:

Anne Elisabeth Stengl makes her home in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she lives with her husband, Rohan, a passel of cats, and one long-suffering dog. When she’s not writing, she enjoys Shakespeare, opera, and tea, and studies piano, painting, and pastry baking. She studied illustration at Grace College and English literature at Campbell University. She is the author of the award-winning Tales of Goldstone Woods series, an ever-growing world of knights and dragons, mystical forests and hidden demesnes, unspeakable evil and boundless grace.

Here’s what I personally know. Anne Elisabeth is a smart, talented writer. She has envisioned a wonderfully creative world and populated it with interesting, diverse characters. Her stories are infused with grace, but they are not your “typical” Christian fiction.

God doesn’t appear in the stories so much as He is represented. None of them is preachy or, as Jerry Jenkins said in a recent post, “on the nose.” Anne Elisabeth uses allusion and symbolism to communicate what she wants readers to know. My personal favorite of her books is Dragonwitch, a finalist in the 2014 Clive Staples Award.

I highly recommend Anne Elisabeth’s books to anyone who thinks he or she might like stories about a “world of knights and dragons, mystical forests and hidden demesnes, unspeakable evil and boundless grace.”

Published in: on January 16, 2015 at 5:50 pm  Comments Off on Fantasy Friday – Cover Reveal  
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Kids Don’t Have To Rebel


brother-and-sisterSo much talk these days is about millennials leaving the church. I know of one individual raised in a Christian home who went off to high-profile university and came back after four years disavowing Christianity. I know of a number of others who went to Christian schools through high school only to choose a lifestyle in contradiction of what they’d been taught. One such person living with her boyfriend says she still loves Jesus. She just doesn’t have time for church. Or apparently the things of the Bible.

But is this kind of attrition inevitable? Are Christian parents raising kids with little more than a flip-of-the-coin certainty that what they’re teaching will stick?

I watched literally hundreds of kids march through the Christian schools where I taught, and I have to say, parents have much better odds that their kids will follow the faith they’ve been taught if two things can be avoided and two things established.

First, parents should NOT try to shelter their kids from the world. First, it’s nearly a futile effort. I grew up in a Christian home but attended public schools. I shied away from talking with my parents about a number of things because I didn’t want to shock THEM. Because of their standards, and the fact that they didn’t raise hard issues, I was naive enough to think they were naive.

I just saw a posting on Facebook about one of these movie rating sites, a spoof actually. But the reality is, there are sites that count the number of “questionable words,” detail every taste of alcohol, every puff of cigarette smoke, or whatever “unsafe” thing might be in the movie.

What a mistake! Kids know people drink, do drugs, have illicit sex, and much more. Or if they don’t, they will as soon as they go away to college. Then what? They’ll be on their own trying to make sense of the unsafe world they’ve been shielded from.

discussionFar better if parents would sit down with their kids and say, I know this movie shows a hero taking vengeance by killing the person he was supposed to arrest. What do you think about that? What do you think God’s word says about that? How would God want us to handle evil people?

Parents simply miss teaching moments because they’re too busy focusing on the peripherals and not addressing the why’s and wherefore’s.

In contrast, other parents take a hands-off approach, a “I’ll let them make up their own mind” attitude. It’s the spiritual equivalent of teaching kids to swim by throwing them into the pool.

There are some parents who don’t go quite that far. Rather, they turn their child’s spiritual education over to a church or Christian school. The truth is, however, kids learn a lot more from example than they do from didactic instruction.

They learn best where there is example with didactic instruction supporting it, from church and home and school.

So one of the things that parents can establish is a lifestyle they want their children to emulate. If they want them to read the Bible regularly, go to church on Sunday, be involved in a ministry, love their neighbors, forgive people who offend them, and more, then the first thing parents need to do is to model every single one of those.

Impossible, I know. But there’s an important part of this modeling: when parents blow it, they can teach as much to their children by admitting their sin and asking forgiveness. That speaks volumes about how seriously they take living what they profess.

The second thing parents can establish is regular pray with and for their children. Nothing is more powerful. Nothing. When we pray, we are not dropping our quarters into the God machine to get whatever we want. We’re not buying into the God-lotto either—sometimes with our numbers coming up and sometimes not.

No. Prayer is our admission that we are dependent people who need God. Not just as an add-on. We need Him like we need oxygen or functioning brainwaves or a heart that pumps blood. We actually need Him more, because when this life is over, He will still be there. And who else are we going to depend on then?

How critical that we learn to depend on Him completely now! How critical that we teach our children that we are not self-sufficient except for the few big things that seem out of our control, like a hurricane or cancer.

We’ve gotten away from asking God—really asking Him and meaning it—for our daily bread. We don’t need God for our daily bread, we think. We can always buy it from the grocery store.

Except there’s the matter of money, which we get from a job, which we get from the skills and abilities we have and perhaps the people we know and the openings we hear about and the interviews we successfully navigate, and . . . well, I hope you see the point. We think it’s all up to us, but there are so many more factors that God, in His great mercy engineers for us. And, walla! We have food on the table.

How important that kids see parents dependent upon God.

So, did I ever do the rebellion thing? I did not. I think my parents tried to shield me, so you might think I should have rebelled. But they did the other three pretty well.

Let’s face it. Kids still have to accept Christ and decide to follow Him with their whole hearts, no matter what parents do. But I am pretty confident that shielding kids and trying to create “safe” without the other three will probably push them into the rebellion the parents want to spare them.

If you think about the people that Jesus reached with the gospel, there weren’t a lot of people who’d been raised in a safe environment protected from the evils of the world. There were prostitutes, at least one thief, corrupt tax collectors, sick people considered unclean by society and the religious establishment, a militant terrorist, people who’d been demon-possessed. Christ Himself said He came to save the lost, so any safe, “found people” weren’t really in need of Him.

But that’s what we ought to be helping our kids realize: no matter what our outward circumstances, we are in need of a Savior. If, instead, we teach them they can control their own environment and make the world a better place, at least for themselves and their own, we will be pushing them out of the church.

The church is not a safe place. It’s a place where broken people congregate to swap stories of how they got rescued and patched up. It’s a place they can gush about the One who got them out of the kingdom of darkness and into the Light.

Time, I think, for parents to put to bed the notion that they can keep their kids safe. They can’t for one thing. But God can. So asking Him to do so seems like the first step, not the last recourse.

Blessings on those movie reviewers, but I also think it’s time to put them to bed and let parents engage their kids rather than outsourcing their application of Scripture to pop culture. Parents need to think through why they believe what they believe and articulate that to their children. Saying, “It got a 2 on moral values at XXX review site,” doesn’t train a child in the way he should go. Rather, it delays his engagement with the culture. And that state, like being freed from demon possession only to have seven other demons take up residence, is worse than before.