And The Winner Is …

The title of this post is a little misleading because no one is actually winning anything. However, I did want to share the results of the “It’s All In The Opening” poll since I mentioned it with some frequency last week, either here or at other social media venues. According to those who voted, there was a clear front runner and a solid second place, with the other four books lagging behind.

Not only do I want to give you the results, I want to do the Big Reveal: who wrote each of those excerpts. In other words, who did you all end up voting for based solely on the writing of their first one hundred or so words?

So, after 90 votes and an unknown number of abstentions, here are the books, the authors, and the results in the order in which they appeared in the poll.

– – – – –

Choice A The Opposite Of Art by Athol Dickson (Howard Books, A Division of Simon & Schuster), *9% of the vote.

Sirens called him from his dreams. When the racket stopped, he rose and crossed the little bedroom of his hotel suite to lean out into the night, trusting his life to the freezing wrought iron railing just beyond the window so he could gaze down into the alley where a couple of New York City’s finest had thrown some guy against the bricks. Even from five floors up, even in the dark, Ridler recognized the lust for violence and the fear down there, but that was nothing compared to the play of the police car’s lights on the wall across the alley.

– – – – –

Choice B The Realms Thereunder by Ross Lawhead (Thomas Nelson), 10% of the vote.

“And I say that you’re a fool, Addison Fletcher!” the brawny man declared, striking his ale mug against the bare wooden table for emphasis.

“God smite me where I sit if I tell a lie, Coll Dawson!” Addison protested, his eyes flicking heavenward for the briefest of moments.

“Ah, but — did you not say,” declared Coll, cocking an eyebrow and pointing a finger. “Did you not say that you got this account from another –”

“From Rob Fuller,”piped a voice from the end of the table.

“Aye, from Rob Fuller. And who’s to say that a tale told by Rob Fuller is true or false? Swearing oaths upon secondhand tales is not wise.”

– – – – –

Choice C The Monster In The Hollows by Andrew Peterson (Rabbit Room Press), 39% of the vote.

It wasn’t a sound that woke Janner Igiby. It was a silence.

Something was wrong.

He strained into a sitting position, wincing at the pain in his neck, shoulders, and thighs. Every time he moved he was reminded of the claws and teeth that had caused his wounds.

He expected to see the bearer of those claws and teeth asleep in the bunk beside him, but his brother was gone. Sunlight fell through the porthole and slid to and fro across the empty mattress like a pendulum, keeping time with the rocking of the boat. The other bunk’s bedclothes were in a heap on the floor, which was typical; Kalmar never made his bed back in Glipwood, either. What wasn’t typical was his absence.

– – – – –

Choice D The Bone House by Stephen Lawhead (Thomas Nelson), 8% of the vote.

From a snug in the corner of the Museum Tavern, Douglas Flinders-Petrie dipped a sop of bread into the gravy of his steak and kidney pudding and watched the entrance to the British Museum across the street. The great edifice was dark, the building closed to the public for over three hours. The employees had gone home, the charwomen had finished their cleaning, and the high iron gates were locked behind them. The courtyard was empty and, outside the gates, there were fewer people on the street now than an hour ago. He felt no sense of urgency: only keen anticipation, which he savoured as he took another draught of London Pride. He had spent most of the afternoon in the museum, once more marking the doors and exits, the blind spots, the rooms where a person might hide and remain unseen by the night watchmen, of which there were but three to cover the entire acreage of the sprawling institution.

– – – – –

Choice E The Button Girl by Sally Apokedak (unpublished manuscript), 20% of the vote.

The lantern, dangling from Repentance Atwater’s upstretched hand, cast a pool of yellow light around the village midwife, as she stooped beside Joy Springside’s sleeping mat. The rest of the cave lay in darkness.

“Push, now, Joy!” the midwife commanded.

Joy, her face scrunched with the effort, pushed.

The baby came finally, all purple-skinned and slick with blood and screaming his protest at the world.

Screaming his protest.

A boy!

It wasn’t fair! Lantern light splashed up and down the walls as Repentance’s hand shook.

She grimaced, as the babe’s squalling bounced off hard stone walls and bruised her raw nerves. She should never have agreed to this.

– – – – –

Choice F Pattern Of Wounds by J. Mark Bertrand (Bethany House), 12% of the vote.

A uniform named Nguyen is on the tape tonight. The flashing lights bounce off the reflective strips on his slicker. He cocks his head at my ID and gives me a sideways smile.

“Detective March,” he says, adding my name to his log.

“I know you, don’t I? You worked the Thomson scene last year.”

“That was me.”

“Good work, if I remember. You got a line on this one yet?”

“I haven’t even been inside.” He nods at the house over his shoulder. A faux Tuscan villa on Brompton in West University, just a couple of blocks away from the Rice village. “Nice, huh? Not the first place I’d expect to be called out to.”

“You think death cares where you live?”

“I guess not. Answer me one thing: why the monkey suit?”

– – – – –

So what I’m wondering … after seeing the book covers and learning who the authors are, would you change your vote?

Something to think about.

* Percentages have been rounded to the nearest whole number.

The Stereotype That Keeps On Slamming Doors

Over and over I hear or see statements like, I don’t read Christian fiction because it is so ___. Fill in the blank — preachy, poorly written, predictable, unrealistic, sanitized.

I’m not going to pretend that all Christian fiction is well-crafted, with deep spiritual themes that demand real thinking while telling a captivating story.

But I think it’s fair to ask those who make negative declarations, especially categorical ones, about Christian fiction, What have you read lately?

Author friend Mike Duran began a discussion today on his site Decompose that has generated a number of slam-the-door-on-Christian-fiction comments. So I decided to provide short excerpts of a few of my favorite novels — YA or adult, mostly speculative, but not all — which fall under the Christian fiction umbrella, as evidence that readers would do well to prop the door open.

We must counter ignorance with facts, I think, or the same negative lines get repeated over and over. That’s a sure way of chasing off potential readers! After all, why should a reader pick up a Christian novel if a bunch of insiders agree Christian fiction is bad?

Here is a smattering of evidence that such a conclusion is faulty (links are to longer excerpts so you can read more if you wish):

The Charlatan’s Boy by Jonathan Rogers — a YA fantasy stand-alone

I don’t remember one thing about the day I was born. It hasn’t been for lack of trying either. I’ve set for hours trying to go back as far as I could, but the earliest thing I remember is riding in the back of Floyd’s wagon and looking at myself in a looking glass.

I’ve run across folks claim they know everything about their birthday—where it happened, who they was with, what day it was. But if you really press them on it, turns out they don’t remember no more about it than I do. They only know what somebody told them.

I don’t care who you are—when it comes to knowing where you come from, you got to take somebody else’s word for it. That’s where things has always got ticklish for me. I only know one man who might be able to tell me where I come from, and that man is a liar and a fraud.

Vanish by Tom Pawlick — first in a series of adult supernatural suspense

It all began with a feeling. Just an eerie feeling.

Conner Hayden peered out his office window at the hazy downtown Chicago vista. Heat plumes radiated from tar-covered rooftops baking in the midafternoon sun. A late-summer heat wave had every AC unit in the city running at full capacity.

He narrowed his eyes. Every unit except the one on the building across the street. On that roof, a lone maintenance worker in blue coveralls crouched beside the bulky air conditioner with his toolbox open beside him.

Conner watched the man toil in the oppressive August heat. Something hadn’t felt right all day. Despite the relative seclusion of his thirty-ninth-floor office, Conner couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched.

It had begun early that morning when he stopped for gas. He could have sworn the guy at the next pump was staring at him. Conner saw his face for only an instant. But it looked strange somehow — dark, as if shrouded by a passing shadow. And his eyes . . .

For a moment, his eyes looked completely white.

Then the shadow passed and the guy turned away.

On The Edge Of The Dark Sea Of Darkness, Book One of the Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson — Middle Grade/YA fantasy

Just outside the town of Glipwood, perched near the edge of the cliffs above the Dark Sea sat a little cottage where lived the Igiby family. The cottage was rather plain, except for how comfortable it was, and how nicely it had been built, and how neatly it was kept in spite of the three children who lived there, and except for the love that glowed from it like firelight from its windows at night.

As for the Igiby family? Well, except for the way they always sat late into the night beside the hearth telling stories, and when they sang in the garden while they gathered the harvest, and when the grandfather, Podo Helmer, sat on the porch blowing smoke rings, and except for all the good, warm things that filled their days there like cider in a mug on a winter night, they were quite miserable. Quite miserable indeed, in that land where walked the Fangs of Dang.

Back On Murder by J. Mark Bertrand — first in the Roland March Mystery series, adult mystery

I’m on the way out. They can all tell, which is why the crime scene technicians hardly acknowledge my presence, and my own colleagues do a double take whenever I speak. Like they’re surprised to find me still here.

But I am here, staring down into the waxy face of a man who, with a change of wardrobe, could pass for a martyred saint.

It’s all in the eyes. Rolling heavenward in agony, brows arched in acute pain. A pencil mustache clinging to the vaulted upper lip, blood seeping through the cracks between the teeth. The ink on his biceps. Blessed Virgins and barb-wired hearts and a haloed man with a cleft beard.

But instead of a volley of arrows or a vat of boiling oil, this one took a shotgun blast point-blank just under the rib cage, flaying his wife-beater and the chest cavity beneath. He fell backward onto the bed, arms out, bleeding out onto the dingy sheets.

Lorenz stands next to me, holding the victim’s wallet. He slips the license out and whistles. “Our boy here is Octavio Morales.”

He’s speaking to the room, not me personally, but I answer anyway. “The money guy?”

The Ale Boy’s Feast by Jeffrey Overstreet — adult fantasy (this excerpt is from the Auralia Thread series summary leading up to this book)


The ale boy was once an errand runner, almost invisible as he served House Abascar. As he grew up—an orphan raised by House Abascar’s beer brewer and winemaker—his real name remained a secret, even from him.

But what he did know proved useful indeed. As he gathered the harvest fruits beyond Abascar’s walls, worked with brewers below ground, delivered drinks across the city, and served the king his favorite liquor, the ale boy learned the shortcuts and secrets of that oppressed kingdom.

When the ale boy met Auralia, a mysterious and artistic young woman from the wilderness, they formed a friendship that would change the world. Auralia’s artistry shone with colors no one had ever seen, and when she revealed her masterpiece within House Abascar, the kingdom erupted in turmoil that ended in a calamitous collapse. Auralia vanished, as did her enchanting colors. And hundreds of people died.

Brokenhearted but brave, the ale boy sought out survivors in Abascar’s ruins and helped them find their way to a refuge in the Cliffs of Barnashum.There, led by their new king, Cal-raven, the people endured a harsh winter and an attack from the Cent Regus beastmen.

The Book of Names by D. Barkley Briggs — YA fantasy

The day was gray and cold, mildly damp. Perfect for magic.

Strange clouds overhead teased the senses with a fragrance of storm, wind, and lightning, and the faint, clean smell of ozone. Invisible energy sparkled like morning dew on blades of grass.

Standing alone in an empty field on the back end of their new acreage, Hadyn Barlow only saw the clouds. By definition, you can’t see what’s invisible, and as for smelling magic? Well, let’s just say, unlikely. Hadyn saw what was obvious for late November, rural Missouri: leafless trees, dead grass, winter coming on strong. Most of all he saw (and despised) the humongous briar patch in front of him, feeling anew each and every blister and callus earned hacking through its branches.

Blaggard’s Moon by George Bryan Polivka (maybe the best of them all) — adult fantasy

“On a post. In a pond.”

Delaney said the words aloud, not because anyone could hear him but because the words needed saying. He wished his small declaration could create a bit of sympathy from a crewmate, or a native, or even one of the cutthroats who had left him here. But he was alone.

It wasn’t the post to which he’d been abandoned that troubled him, though it was troubling enough. The post was worn and unsteady, about eight inches across at the top where his behind was perched, and it jutted eight feet or so up from the still water below him. His shins hugged its pocked and ragged sides; his feet were knotted at the ankles behind him for balance. Delaney was a sailor, and this was not much different than dock posts in port where he’d sat many times to take his lunch. He was young enough not to be troubled with a little pain in the backside, old enough to have felt his share of it. No, the post wasn’t the problem.

The pond from which the post jutted was not terribly troublesome either. It was a lagoon, really, less than a hundred yards across, no more than fifty yards to shore in any direction. He could swim that distance easily. He peered down through the water, past its smooth, still surface, and eyed the silver-green flash of scales, lit bright by the noonday sun.

The piranha, now, they were somewhat vexing.

Lost Mission by Athol Dickson — adult magic realism (sadly I can’t copy any of the excerpt of this one, so you’ll have to click on the link to get a flavor of the book.

Mind you, this sampling doesn’t include a single author of women’s fiction. In that genre I’d recommend Julie Carobini, Kathryn Cushman, Kathleen Popa, Sharon Souza, Debbie Thomas, and that’s right off the top of my head.

I’m just saying, good Christian fiction is available.

When readers listen to those who don’t (or who no longer) read the genre, they are insuring that publishers will not aim for a larger audience — because when they do, insiders will say, Those genres don’t sell. And they’ll be right because those not informed about the latest books and newest authors are telling potential readers how horrible Christian fiction is. Who wants to buy books when the buzz about them is so negative?

How about, let’s at least keep an open mind, so when someone like me or Tim George who reviews for Fiction Addict or any of the CSFF Tour bloggers gives a contrasting opinion to the “Christian fiction is bad” mantra, we might consider that it’s possible there are some worthwhile books published by Christian houses.

Shaping Culture

I enjoy listening to apologist Ravi Zacharias on the weekend. In the talk that aired Sunday, he posited three ways in which culture is shaped. In essence, this process is actually the manner in which a person influences others, either their contemporaries or those of a coming generation.

One method a person can use to shape culture is theory. This method would include such things as reading Plato and Aristotle or any other philosopher who is working through a theory of how the world works.

A second method is through the arts. Here Mr. Zacharias gave the example of Albert Camus and his philosophy of the absurd (shown in stories such as The Plague and The Stranger) or existentialist Franz Kafka (The Metamorphosis, The Trial).

The third method of shaping culture is by prescription—that is, by telling someone what to do. By preaching, you might say. Or dictating. Parents use prescription regularly—Monique, make your bed or Lee, do your homework.

As I listened to the descriptions of these three methods, I couldn’t help but think about Christian fiction, particularly that the Christian writing world wants to reduce our ability to shape the culture to just theory and prescription.

While some writers like Athol Dickson have declared the importance of having something to say in fiction, I continue to read others parroting the sound bite, If you want to deliver a message, go preach a sermon.

How clever. And how wrong.

Not that sermons don’t deliver messages. They should. But so should stories. Just not in the same way.

The message of a story—and we’re actually talking about its theme, a literary term for the idea that pervades a work—should not be delivered in the same way as the message of a sermon. Preaching, after all, is prescriptive. Stories should not be prescriptive.

However, it’s a mistake for an author to accept this last statement and then deduce that stories should not have a message, or that the message will somehow ooze out of the author’s pores onto the page. As if delivering a powerful, non-prescriptive message takes no purposeful planning, no conscious thought.

Mike Duran recently had an interesting blog post about the time necessary to write meaningful stories. Primarily he was pointing out the effect of deadlines on a writer. But I can’t help but wonder if haste doesn’t first strip away depth from our stories. Who has the chance to think about what he actually wants to communicate when he needs to create realistic, engaging characters and a plot that isn’t derivative or predictable.

However, I don’t think haste would strip our fiction of its meaning, no matter how hard it is to weave a thoughtful message into the fabric of a story, if we were committed to the idea that we are shaping culture by our art. And that it’s OK to do so. Really.

Published in: on October 4, 2010 at 6:54 pm  Comments (3)  
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Let’s All Write the Same

I hope you realize I’m being facetious by suggesting all writers should write in the same way. However, I sometimes get the feeling that advocates of certain writing approaches think this outcome would be desirable.

I recently read a review that criticized a work for what it did NOT do, as if all works had, in fact, to do exactly the same thing. Now if the criticism was that the story did not have a likable protagonist or it did not have sufficient conflict or a central theme, then I would understand. These are things necessary to every story. But this was not the case.

Instead this criticism centered on a style. I’ll use an example. James Scott Bell, in his excellent book Plot & Structure advocates using the “three-act structure.” Does that mean this is the only structure a novel can follow?

Apparently some people believe so, religiously, to the point of criticizing any novel that dares to use a different structure as if it is inferior or deficient. The fact is, the three-act structure is one way of telling a story, but not the only way. James Bell himself says so:

Can You Play With Structure?
Of course. Once you understand why it works, you are free to use that understanding to fit your artistic purposes … So grasp the worth of structure, then write what you will.
– p. 24

Jim does go on to say that even in non-linear plots eventually the same elements and information found in a plot organized into three acts will also surface.

But what if a reviewer uses the three-act structure as his bible for The Way Stories Should Be, and he comes across a story like Lost Mission by Athol Dickson? Anyone reading the various posts during the CSFF Blog Tour for this book probably knows Athol did not follow the three-act structure.

And I suggest, the literary world is better for it. We’re better for books like George Bryan Polivka’s Blaggard’s Moon, too, that creates “story movement” as John Truby calls it, through a means other than linear story telling.

My point is simply this: when an author is allowed to actually create, his work may be very different from some of the patterns advocated in writing instruction books. Truth is, it may be inaccessible, as I find A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to be, no matter how acclaimed a writer James Joyce is. But it also might be brilliant and award winning (think, Gilead by Marianne Robinson) and wonderfully fresh and even wildly successful (think Harry Potter).

The alternative is for authors to put creativity aside and work exclusively within the cookie-cutter structure of screenplays. All books would soon become predictable (have you started noticing that the least likely suspect is almost always the culprit?) and characters, interchangeable.

The same is true of any other dearly held belief about writing. Some of the oft repeated writer advice—avoid an omniscient point of view, strip away all adverbs, don’t use “was,” kill off -ing words, and so on—ends up sterilizing writing. No longer does an author have a unique voice, a creative story, a fresh approach. Instead, it all needs to sound the same, only better.

I think the “only better” part is accurate. I’m taking issue with the hard and fast approaches that render fiction too much the same.

CSFF Blog Tour – Lost Mission by Athol Dickson, Day 3

As I suspected, the CSFF Blog Tour for Lost Mission by Athol Dickson (see his blog for more thoughtful discussion) has produced some controversy. It seems tour participants, for the most part, either loved the book as Andrea (blogging for Brandon Barr) did, or hated it as Cris did. The one thing nearly everyone agrees about is that the book disturbs. And so, I believe, it was intended to do. This is not your comfortable happily-ever-after novel that you’ll finish in one sitting and forget in the light of a new day.

The Story. Two distinct story threads run through Lost Mission, one from history when the Spanish were building missions and the other during a more contemporary period of time.

In the first thread, three Franciscan priests have the task of establishing a mission in Alta California with the purpose of converting the Indian peoples to Catholicism. As this thread unfolds, one priests reveals himself to be a tyrant, one a compassionate man with no true moral stand, and the third trapped by the two extremes.

The contemporary thread mirrors this story. The three principles are actually three and a half. One is a young pastor who wants to serve the poor. The second is a man who believes himself to be a Christian but who uses Scripture to manipulate and judge others. The third is a young Hispanic women from Mexico who comes to the US to tell the lost about her Savior. The “half” is a character that comes and goes, though his role is significant. Initially he helps the young woman to start her journey across the border.

In the historical thread, a devastating illness sweeps through the Mission and the surrounding villages. Each of the three priests reacts in different ways to stem the spread of the disease, while all around them, the people they came to save are dying.

In the contemporary thread, the characters are embroiled in love, loss, fear, and fervor. When those elements cross each other in the lives of the different people, the result is explosive. (That’s the best I can do without giving spoilers).

Strengths. From my perspective, the writing is the greatest strength. Athol utilizes an omniscient narrator, a technique not often seen in contemporary literature, to weave these two threads into one story. He forms transitions from short passages of narrative or character contemplation, segueing from the historical character to whom the thoughts apply, to the contemporary character dealing with similar issues.

In addition, the characters are complex, their problems genuine. There are no easy answers. Consequently, the novel is disturbing, another strength, in my way of thinking. It raises issues that need to be thought through, not rubber stamped with a ready answer.

But that leads me to a weakness of the story, and of necessity I’ll include spoilers, so here’s your

    * * * SPOILER ALERT * * *

Weaknesses. For me, the greatest weakness was the fact that none of the characters handled their crises—and their relationship to God—the way I think Scripture calls us to.

Clearly the two wayward priests dealt with life and crisis in ways that contradict Scripture, so that leaves us to hope Frey Alejandro will rise to the occasion. But he doesn’t. By God’s grace he is spared, and I think this is the point of the book, but let me continue.

Just as clearly young pastor Tucker does not handle crisis Scripturally, nor does the wealthy American, Delano. First when his wife left him, then when his daughter died, he struck out against others even as he folded in upon himself. That leaves us Lupe. She who once was so convinced she was following God’s leading becomes filled with doubt and comes close to despair.

But here’s why I consider this a weakness. Instead of turning to God’s Word, she looks for signs to be her guide, her comfort. She says a number of time, as Frey Alejandro did, that she doesn’t feel God’s presence any more. I want to shout, Then open your Bible! You’ll find Him within its pages. He promises that if we draw near to Him, He’ll draw near to us, so get moving!

In short, this is not a weakness in the story but a weakness in presenting truth, which I want to see in stories by Christians.

There were some plot issues I saw as well. Why, for example, didn’t Tucker plead with the church leaders who were denying him financial support for his mission, to give him the money for the medicine that would save the little girl? It seems to me he should have at least tried rather than thinking his only recourse was to steal.

There were a few other things, like Tucker, so intelligent he could become an accomplished thief in a short period of time, didn’t stop to think that Delano couldn’t have stolen the painting from Lupe’s ritablo because the clasps that held it together were ancient and had not been tampered with. In the same way, Delano, who was no dummy, should have realized that Lupe did not paint him into the picture because the work was old and cracked.

There were a couple other minor plot problems, but all of them together did not lessen the impact of the story. At one point I came to realize that I was Tucker at heart. It was a jolt, and it pushed me to repentance. A good thing, surely.

Recommendation. So how can I not recommend a book as powerful as Lost Mission. Like anything else we read, we must think and look to Scripture and compare and ask questions and pray. This book pushed me to do a lot of the above. I highly recommend Lost Mission for those who are ready to tackle a book that disturbs and makes them think about God and His work and His ways. The book doesn’t give the answers, and that’s why it is so powerful.

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

Published in: on April 14, 2010 at 9:57 am  Comments (9)  
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CSFF Blog Tour – Lost Mission by Athol Dickson, Day 2

Yesterday was a great start for the CSFF Blog Tour featuring Lost Mission by Athol Dickson. In discussing the obedience theme touched on in the book, I brushed against the second major theme, so I think I’ll go ahead and begin discussion of it today, saving my review for tomorrow.

The theme I’m referring to is wealth and the Christian. Athol explored the subject from two angles—Christians who had an abundance and Christians in need.

One group, the wealthy gringos living in Blanco Beach, had cushy church facilities and were blind to the needs of the poor. As a body, they funded projects, but as individuals they didn’t consider how their decisions affected actual people. They seemed callous to others, not loving. The church leaders operated their organization more like a business than a ministry, and they personally lived opulent lives while nearby children died for lack of medicine.

At best, the people in this group were clueless Christians. At worst, they were nominal Christians living Pharisaical lives and corrupting the true church in the process.

In the other group were the poor Mexican workers and their self-sacrificing white young pastor. These were people living in Wilson City who worked hard, sent money back to Mexico, lived simply, and suffered great need. They prayed for what they lacked, but God didn’t intervene to change their circumstances. So their pastor did. In the face of his people’s suffering, and the unseemly wealth of the uncaring, close-fisted Christians in a position to help, he determined to play Robin Hood.

Within the pages of Lost Mission we find Christians loving money, using money to accomplish an evil purpose, stealing money to accomplish a greater good, giving money away generously, investing money, and withholding money.

One of the things I like about this book is that no one—author or character—says, Pastor, you should stop stealing. Or, Wealthy tycoon, you should love your neighbor and give to the poor. Rather, through the actions of the characters and the events of the story, change occurs and the characters themselves come to realize their weaknesses, sins, mistakes.

The reader, meanwhile, is left to make of it all what he wishes. As I often say here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction, we need to read with discernment. A book like Lost Mission requires that of us.

Possibly some cheered when Tucker, the young pastor, took the money to buy medicine for the critically ill child. Certainly any caring person would feel for the mother, the friend, the pastor who stood by helplessly as the little girl grew worse and worse. But discernment for the Christian means to look into God’s Word and see what our Heavenly Father says about life. Are the characters reflecting Biblical standards? Do they come to agree with the Bible at some point?

The Bible actually has a lot to say about the money issue. Here are a few key principles:

  • serving God and money at the same time is impossible
  • generous giving isn’t about how much but how self-sacrificially a person gives (see the story about the widow’s mite)
  • the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil
  • God provides abundantly beyond what we ask or think
  • the goal should be contentment, whether in plenty or in want
  • giving should be cheerful
  • stealing is against God’s law
  • giving is a function of loving our neighbor (see the story of the Good Samaritan)
  • storing up treasure in heaven is profitable
  • storing up treasure on earth may lead to losing it (James 5:1)
  • building a bigger barn to keep all our stuff is foolish

I’m sure there are others, but this sampling gives us enough to hold up as a standard by which to measure the actions and attitudes of the characters in Lost Mission.

For those of you who have read the book, here’s a question:

And now, take a look at yesterday’s post and check out what the other bloggers on the tour are saying about *Lost Mission.

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

Published in: on April 13, 2010 at 10:29 am  Comments (6)  
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CSFF Blog Tour – Lost Mission by Athol Dickson, Day 1

The first of two CSFF Blog Tour April features is Lost Mission by Athol Dickson (Howard Fiction). This adult novel is best characterized as literary magic realism, so it’s quite different from the usual CSFF fare. Not a bad thing.

Several particulars stand out to me when I think of this book, not the least being two significant themes. I think I’ll treat each of those separately, then do my review. Or maybe I’ll do my review sandwiched between the treatment of the themes—we’ll see what tomorrow brings. 😉

At any rate, today I want to discuss obedience. In the context of Lost Mission, obedience refers to choosing to obey God rather than Man, choosing to obey or disobey national laws, choosing to follow rule or conscience.

The most obvious situation in which obedience becomes a central issue involves key characters who disregard immigration law and travel from Mexico to the US illegally.

As if to pave the way for acceptance of this action, the book fairly early introduced the idea of borders being artificial boundaries:

The friar knew nothing of geography, but he had seen no line upon the ground, no barricade along the border. To him the animals and plants and soil had all seemed the same … Pondering the power of such an invisible difference, Alejandro wondered what drove men to call one land different from another. Even if there had been some kind of marker at the border, what did it truly signify? A bird upon the wind would pass from here to there unchanged, and whether the wind blew from south or north it did not pause at walls or fences, yet a man born on one side of a line upon a map might be forced to carry heavy burdens like an animal, while with a different accident of birth the same man might be blessed to ride a horse. Ideas, it seemed, were the most substantial thing in the universe.

Ideas, not laws? After all, borders are ultimately a result of treaties and agreements. But if they exist instead as “ideas” might not someone else have a different idea upon which he may act?

Apparently that point is one Lost Mission explores. The main character, Lupe, believes she is led by God to go to the US to preach the gospel to the pagans who glorify money and self. Her first step is to pack up and start out across the border illegally.

Later in the story one of the characters becomes a modern Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to give to the poor because he sees greed and a lack of compassion and hypocrisy in church-goers. So the question develops: is it ever right to do wrong?

I couldn’t help thinking about Corrie ten Boom hiding Jews during World War II. To do this, she and her underground group falsified identity papers and stole food ration cards and lied to the authorities. Was this not the same as Rahab lying to protect the two Israelite spies in Jericho before God’s people marched into the Promised Land?

Do these kinds of things fall under the category of obeying God rather than Man? But where does “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matt. 22:21a) fit into this line of thinking? And what about this admonition in I Peter:

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.
– I Peter 2:13-14

I could say a lot more about the subject, but let me give a quick overview of my own thoughts. Scripture needs to be my guide. I have a clear mandate to submit to every human institution and Christ’s own example of doing so during the Roman empire when government was vile and corrupt. However, if these human institutions require me to do something that contradicts God’s commandments, I must disobey them in order to obey Him.

Clearly a person wishing to go to the US to preach the gospel has other options than illegal immigration. Someone confronted with greed and selfishness has other options than theft. Those, and situations like them, are not instances in which a Christian should do other than abide by the law. At least, that’s how I see it.

Check out what others on the blog tour have to say about this subject and about Lost Mission itself.

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

Published in: on April 12, 2010 at 10:12 am  Comments (11)  
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Faith in Fiction

When I first became active on the internet, a friend introduced me to Bethany editor Dave Long’s blog and the associated discussion board known as Faith in Fiction. While Dave is no longer an active blogger, there is a lot of interesting material in the archives at his site.

Lots of intense discussion on the FIF board too. So much of the interaction that took place there helped shape my thoughts about fiction and how it intersected with my faith—that is, how faith comes into a story.

I think FIF was the first place I encountered writers who claimed Christians should stop making theme the point of their writing. They didn’t say this in those exact words, but the idea was clear: Good writing might have an accidental theme, but anything else would be too preachy.

I’ve long countered this view and have been pleased to see authors such as Andrew Peterson and Athol Dickson discuss theme in a positive light.

Still, I have to admit, as much as I believe theme is an integral part of stories and should be crafted as carefully as any other element, I was surprised to see a writing book that takes this same view.

The book is The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. Here are a few pertinent quotes:

We might say that theme, or what I call moral argument, is the brain of the story. Character is the heart and circulation system. Revelations are the nervous system. Story structure is the skeleton. Scenes are the skin.

KEY POINT: Each subsystem of the story consists of a web of elements that help define and differentiate the other elements.

No individual element in your story, including the hero, will work unless you first create it and define it in relation to all the other elements.

Wow! The theme is the brain and must be created and defined in relation to the other elements. Then this:

The theme is your moral vision, your view of how people should act in the world. But instead of making the characters a mouthpiece for a message [!], we will express the theme that is inherent in the story idea. And we’ll express the theme through the story structure so that it both surprises and moves the audience.

Well, I can tell you, I can hardly wait to get to the Moral Argument chapter (Chapter 5) and see what Truby has to say.

Already I’m learning more about theme. What Christian writers call preachy or propaganda is characters acting as mouthpieces for a message. There is a better way. The choices are not a preachy message versus no theme at all. I’m so excited that a writing instructor has tackled this subject.

Published in: on February 19, 2010 at 1:29 pm  Comments (5)  
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CFBA – Winter Haven by Athol Dickson

I’m going to borrow Mark Goodyear‘s favorite method of participating in a blog tour—the first page critique. (Remember, imitation is the highest form of flattery. 😉 )

The Christian Fiction Blog Alliance is featuring Winter Haven by Christy-Award-winning author Athol Dickson.

First, the page itself:

The Gulf of Maine lay easily beneath the mail boat’s keel, passing gentle swells below the vessel like a mother’s soothing stroke upon a baby’s back. This was misery to me. The slow rise up, the slow sink down, the laborious roll to one side at the crest of every swell, the inevitable correction back the other way as the boat slipped toward the trough beyond—all of it had worked upon my stomach without mercy.

I groaned. “How much longer?”

“Ain’t far now, hon,” replied the big woman at the wheel.

We had been at this all morning, doing only eight knots because of the impossibly dense fog that contained us—me and the woman and one other passenger, a man in a vaguely martial khaki vest that seemed to contradict his baby face and the look of perpetual astonishment behind his thick eyeglass lenses. The man chattered on and on, a bottomless source of useless knowledge, unaffected by the little vessel’s endless rolling. He spoke to the woman about ancient boatbuilding techniques, the rules of cribbage, internal combustion engines, and of course the weather. He said the fog was thicker and more widespread than usual because of a strange temperature pattern in the area, with daily highs a full ten degrees above normal while the seatwater remained as cold as ever.

Thoughts on the opening sentence: The Gulf of Maine lay easily beneath the mail boat’s keel, passing gentle swells below the vessel like a mother’s soothing stroke upon a baby’s back. Did it grab me? Not in the usual way. There was no big mystery or problem or anomaly or question. But the image was vivid, interesting, unique.

And that line was followed by one of jarring contradiction: This was misery to me. Contradiction in its length as well as in in its content. What was gentle, soothing like a mother’s stroke was a misery. I’m hooked.

More so in the simple lines of dialogue soon to come, when I learn that the pilot of the vessel is a “big woman.” I’d have expected a gruff or gnarled old man—you know, standard small-boat-captain fare. Instead, Dickson surprises me.

He also gives excellent “description through motion” which brings the scene to life: The slow rise up, the slow sink down, the laborious roll to one side at the crest of every swell, the inevitable correction back the other way as the boat slipped toward the trough beyond—all of it had worked upon my stomach without mercy. By the time I finished reading that line, I was conscious of a little queasiness myself and had to remember that I wasn’t really seasick for I would have taken Dramamine beforehand. 😀 I especially appreciated the cadence of the sentence, so clearly illustrating the very movement it described. Masterful.

The final long paragraph was given mostly to the description of the talkative passenger. Again, whether intentional or not, the choice of a long paragraph here is fitting. The passenger prattles on about this and that, even as the paragraph grows in length (continuing on for a sentence or two on the next page).

I like the specifics Dickson offers about the passenger—his vaguely martial khaki vest, his baby face, his look of perpetual astonishment behind his thick lenses. The man comes to life with the description, but more so his personality takes shape as the reader learns what he chooses to talk about.

My one problem with the first page is this. I thought the point of view character was a man. She is not. As I look back, I can see clues to her gender. The opening simile, for example, is more appropriate for a woman than for a man. The pilot calling her “hon” was another clue, but in seeing that the pilot was a woman, I had no trouble thinking she would call a younger man hon.”

In major crit(tique) mode, I would also add, I’d expect a woman to pay a little closer attention to another woman, especially one who was doing a job so often associated with a man. Later we have a little description of the pilot, but on the second page, in the first paragraph, she is still simply “the woman,” with no further elaboration. Not surprising from a man’s point of view, I think. Chances are, a man wouldn’t notice unless he was attracted to her. But a woman in all likelihood would have had some thought about the other woman on board that boat.

Still, it is a minor, minor point, and one I didn’t think of until later (when I found out she was a woman and started looking back at the beginning). Without a doubt, this first page hooked me and propelled me on to read the first two chapters, though I had intended to look only at the opening.

Let me close with this. Not only does the first page give me a vivid scene, introduce me to a character I feel some sympathy for, and put me in an intriguing place, the language of the story promises to be harmonious with the whole. It undergirds the story, highlights and illustrates and delights. For an example of the latter, you really need to read the rest of the paragraph that continues on page two:

He said the damp warm air moving slowly over the frigid sea caused the mist to rise. He said this was called “advection fog,” although I considered it affliction fog since he simply would not stop talking.

Yep, here’s an opening with promise!

Published in: on April 25, 2008 at 11:53 am  Comments (6)  
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