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.

CFBA Tour – Nothing To Hide By J. Mark Bertrand

Nothing To Hide (Bethany House Publishing) is a Roland March mystery by Mark Bertrand, a writer I got to know at the Faith In Fiction forum years ago. I later had the privilege of meeting him in person at an ACFW conference.

Besides his Roland March mysteries, he co-authored a mystery romance with Deeanne Gist and has written a non-fiction book on Christian worldview. As you might guess, the man is a real talent.

All this to say, when I get an opportunity to read and talk about his work, I’m eager to do so.

The problem is, my copy of Nothing To Hide only arrived last Thursday. Unfortunately, I couldn’t drop everything else and read through, much as I would have loved to. Being a notoriously slow reader, I have only reached the critical set up point during the few hours I’ve been able to settle in with the book.

So rather than a review, I’m offering first impressions. The first is my typical reaction when I crack a book and discover first person, present tense writing–a silent groan.

It’s not my favorite. I’ve tried to figure out why, and the main things that come to mind are moot points if the technique is executed well (see review for Shannon Dittemore’s Angel Eyes).

Clearly, Mark is a skilled writer, and until I sat down to write this post, I hadn’t thought about the point of view or tense since I first started the book.

The plot revolves around a fairly gruesome murder–Roland March is a homicide detective, after all–so there was a little CSI feel to the story at the beginning. I think many readers will be attracted to this aspect, and it wasn’t a negative for me since I wasn’t actually seeing all grisly parts. (Yes, parts!)

The character continues to intrigue me. I’ve seen growth over the first two books, and he isn’t the same despairing, insecure person he was in the first two volumes. He’s still troubled, still trying to make life work, but I like him better so far, respect him more.

Mark’s writing is stellar. There are no hiccups, nothing that pulls me from the story. The scenes are painted well without laboring over needless detail, the characters all seem to be living, breathing people with their own issues.

All in all, this is a satisfying beginning. I’m glad to get back to it again when I must put it down.

If you’d like to read an actual review, check out my friend Nicole‘s article (she is also a former FIF’er) or the excellent one by Linda. I admit, I had to skim their summary of the story because I didn’t want to know anything ahead of time, but their comments about the book are thoughtful.

Better yet, get a copy of the book and find out for yourself what a good storyteller Mark is.

Published in: on July 3, 2012 at 6:36 pm  Comments Off on CFBA Tour – Nothing To Hide By J. Mark Bertrand  
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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.

CFBA Blog Tour – Back on Murder

The current CFBA Blog Tour feature is J. Mark Bertrand‘s Back on Murder, a Roland March Mystery (Bethany House Publishers). I’ve known Mark as an online colleague for some time and have learned a lot from him, so I was happy to join in a tour for his first solo novel. You may recall, he debuted as the co-author with Deeanne Gist of a romantic suspense entitled Beguiled (a novel I also reviewed).

The Story.
Roland March is a troubled, and apparently, in trouble, homicide detective in Houston. He’s been shipped, metaphorically, from the penthouse to the outhouse—given jobs he sees as the bottom of the barrel. He wants desperately to get back into real detective work.

Except, he can’t seem to treat his superiors as … superior. When he gets a chance to work on a case again, under an up-and-coming younger detective, he chafes under the restraint. He has his own hunches he wants to check out, which makes him inattentive to the jobs he’s given.

Even as March is taken off the case and loaned out to another agency, then yanked back to homicide to work the dreaded cop-suicide detail, he continues to pursue his ideas, believing that his career hangs on his solving the intertwining crimes.

There’s more. A grudge match with another detective, personal failings, and heartbreak. As the story unfolds, so does the character—readers learn what caused March’s career to tank and what’s behind his personal demons.

But of course, I’m not going to tell you any of that. “Twould the story spoil. 😉

The thing that impressed me the most was how integrated Christianity is in this story. Not all the characters are Christians, mind you (I read that recently, in a blog comment at another site—that in Christian fiction all the characters are Christians 😛 ). But since one of the crimes around which the story centers involves a Christian, of necessity Detective March must interview a youth pastor among others.

As it turns out, one of his partners is also a Christian and so is … well, you get the idea. Sprinkled throughout his co-workers and acquaintances, March encounters a variety of Christians, none who try to convert him. They simply act the way Christians in real life act.

They struggle with guilt, make good choices, make brave decisions, make mistakes, show weaknesses, live out their faith, and more.

Besides the faith aspect, Mark has done an excellent job portraying characters. Roland March, his wife, Detective Cavallo, the youth pastor Carter Robb, all of them spring to life. They are believable, interesting, three dimensional, well motivated. In short, they make the book.

But what about the plot, you may ask. I mean, this is a mystery, isn’t it? Yeeess, sort of. It’s not your typical mystery, but I’ll touch on that in a bit. The thing is, the plot keeps moving forward and readers learn more about March’s inner world even as they learn about the complex crimes he’s working to solve. It’s not high-action, page-turning, heart-pounding drama. It’s more real than that. An engaging story, peopled with realistic characters, and placed in a true-to-life setting.

Recently Mark wrote a guest post at Forensics and Faith called “First Person, Present Tense (And Other Risks)” in which he said, “The story made me do it.” Yes, Back on Murder is written in first person, present tense. And I have it listed under “weaknesses.”

It’s a personal thing. I don’t like first person very much, though I can adjust. I don’t like present tense hardly at all, but I have liked some books that utilize it.

Both? Such a book requires a strong character voice, and I suggest one that is “agreeable.” To be honest, early in the story, I found Roland March’s strong, distinctive voice to grate on me because it continued page after page. He wasn’t whiny, but he was cynical and negative and depressed and jaded and a bit arrogant. He wore on me.

Thankfully as he became more engaged with the case, he began to … not change as much as shift. I began to understand where his attitude came from, too, so I grew more sympathetic. Let’s say, I’m glad I persevered through the earlier parts.

The other thing I’m considering as a weakness is that Back on Murder isn’t really a mystery. It’s a puzzle. This is not your Hercule Poirot type mystery with a cast of suspects and a litany of clues. Rather this is a twisty, interwoven series of crimes that relate to one another and March is trying to connect the dots.

It’s interesting, but I don’t see it as the kind of mystery that allows a reader to “play along.” Readers learn things as March learns things, so we’re sort of in it together, but not in the same way as the Agatha Christie mysteries. My taste runs toward those.

I know how Mark prefers reviews of Christian books that are more than promotional pieces. The thing is, Back on Murder is worth promoting. It’s a well-written story that integrates Christianity in the same way that Christians are, or should be, integrated in society. The book is entertaining even as it is insightful. I highly recommend Back on Murder to anyone who enjoys a good crime story, who wants to read a well-crafted novel, or who wants to read a book with intriguing characters.

Published in: on July 13, 2010 at 12:22 pm  Comments Off on CFBA Blog Tour – Back on Murder  
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Beguiled – A Review

The first part of this week, the Christian Fiction Blog Alliance (CFBA) is featuring Beguiled by J. Mark Bertrand and Deeanne Gist.

If you read yesterday’s guest post by Mark, you know a little about his ideas regarding Christian fiction. You may then wonder, how did his concepts translate into an actual novel? I’ll be happy to give you my opinion. (Have I ever been shy about stating my opinion? 😆 )

The Genre. Beguiled is an adult Christian romantic suspense novel.

The Story. Only child Rylee Monroe has no one when her parents die—no one except the clients for whom she walks dogs and a caring neighbor in her rundown apartment building. Shortly after a frightening late-night encounter with reporter Logan Woods, Rylee becomes embroiled in a sequence of crimes committed by the Robin Hood burglar. Within days she is the prime suspect.

Logan is convinced of Rylee’s innocence. His reputation as a writer and his pending book contract depend on him finding out who is actually behind the thefts. He and Rylee team up, but suspicion leads to police accusation. Even as Rylee and Logan grow closer, she becomes the target of the Robin Hood burglar.

And I’ll stop there. I’ve probably already said too much.

Strengths. For the most part, the writing was strong. I had a good sense of who these characters were. They had depth—a past filled with difficulty and problems that affected their present.

The suspense was just the right amount as far as I was concerned. I worried for Rylee, but I wasn’t so afraid I wanted to close the book and read something else. In fact, the story questions piqued my curiosity as did the developing circumstances, so I kept turning pages in the wee hours of the night simply because I wanted to know.

Regarding the “faith elements,” which I don’t necessarily discuss in a review, I thought they arose naturally as part of character development. There was no overt preaching, but one character’s Christianity clearly influenced that person’s decisions and actions.

The authors did an excellent job establishing place. I had a real feel for the tight Charleston community south of Broad as well as the rougher, poorer area where Rylee lived. And place turns out to be more important than it first appears.

If I had to name a theme, I think I’d say it involved trust—both giving it and earning it. However, since Mark and I used to have long argu discussions about intentionally incorporating themes in fiction, I suspect I may be seeing something cohesive that the writers never purposed.

Weaknesses. I realize this was romantic suspense, not mystery. However, the fact remains, the story centered on a mystery that the two main characters were trying to solve. The problem was, there weren’t sufficient numbers of characters in the story to supply an adequate amount of red herrings.

Consequently, the perpetrator was apparent quite early (though that person’s motives still remained unclear). Since I’m a mystery lover more than a suspense fan, I was disappointed in this lack of additional suspects.

Apart from a couple minor, and probably imperceptible, inconsistencies, the story was well told.

Recommendation. Anyone who enjoys clean romantic suspense should move Beguiled to the top of their list. It’s got tender moments followed by breath-taking ones. Lots of reason to keep turning the page. Must read for fans of the genre. Recommended as a light, entertaining story for everyone else.

– – –
Disclaimer as per current FTC rules: In conjunction with the CFBA, I received a free copy of Begiled for review from Bethany House Publishers.

Published in: on February 2, 2010 at 10:58 am  Comments Off on Beguiled – A Review  
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Beguiled by J. Mark Bertrand

😆 I realize the title to this post is misleading on two levels. First Mark hasn’t beguiled anyone that I know of, and second he isn’t the sole author of the novel Beguiled.

The latter, however, is on point. As part of the CFBA blog tour for Beguiled, co-authored by Mark and Deeanne Gist, I offer the following guest post by J. Mark Bertrand. Tomorrow I plan a review of Beguiled, an ARC of which I received for free from Bethany House Publishers.

– – –

Films About the Wheat Harvest?

    by J. Mark Bertrand

I didn’t realize until it was pointed out to me that I sound like a broken record, always intoning the same quotation. In my defense, I’m often asked the same question, namely, “How can you justify what you’re writing as Christian fiction?” Short answer: I don’t even try. In the same way I don’t try to justify it as crime fiction, or even good fiction. All I can say is it’s my fiction, a reflection of the world as I see it.

The long answer involves the aforementioned quote. Claude Chabrol, the French film director, was asked by Robert Ebert back in the 1970s how as a communist he could justify the kind of movies he made. “I am a Communist, certainly,” Chabrol replied, “but that doesn’t mean I have to make films about the wheat harvest.”

The reason I cite this response so often is that it underscores a false assumption behind the question — i.e., that an artist’s ideology ought to dictate the kind of work he does and whatever meaning it might convey. How could a Communist sleep at night knowing a particular film, perhaps the only one of his movies a certain viewer might ever see, didn’t include a persuasive pitch for collective farming and the redistribution of wealth? His only chance to convert a movie-going capitalist and he blew it!

A novelist’s perspective doesn’t have to function as a pair of blinders or a pigeonhole. Think of it instead as an influence. People are influenced by their politics, by past experience, by religious and philosophical convictions, and these influences combine to form an interesting (or at any rate, unique) way of seeing things. When a Communist puts pen to paper, he’s not representing a monolithic movement; he’s revealing himself. The same is true for any ideologue, including the Christian.

Naturally, there are people who believe by definition that Communist art should be about dialectical materialism and Christian art should be about the gospel. “Redemption,” broadly speaking, is the term often used. Paradoxically, these totalizing narratives are straightjacketed into narrowly-focused niche products that can’t speak to the whole of existence, or at least shouldn’t.

I can respect the position, but I don’t happen to share it. As a writer, I prefer to take on the world at large, the big messy scope of reality, pursuing it subjectively and (I hope) convincingly wherever it leads. I’m confident enough in my ideas not to think they need special coddling, and have a high enough view of my readers to realize that while my work might entertain and engage them, even influence them, it’s hardly capable of scrubbing away their own conception of life and inserting my own.

So when I write, I’m speaking for myself, for better or worse. I’m a Christian, and in my less humble moments (which are all too common) I prefer to think of myself as more influenced by that theological tradition than many people who’d own the label of “Christian novelist” with less ambiguity. My books come with no implicit guarantee that they’ll match up to anyone else’s notion of what they should be. For better or worse, the worldview they embody is my own.

    * * *

J. Mark Bertrand’s novel Beguiled, co-authored with Deeanne Gist, is in stores now. His crime novel Back on Murder, the first in a series featuring Houston homicide detective Roland March, releases this summer. More information at and on Mark’s new blog

Published in: on February 1, 2010 at 9:50 am  Comments (2)  
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A Christian Worldview Revisited

Last Friday’s post, The Need for Christian Worldview SF/Fantasy, generated some great discussion.

I especially liked J’s comment:

So, a Christian worldview in writing is essential to understanding our universe.

I think that’s true. But what do we mean by this worldview term? Some people may be yawning right about now, thinking that we’ve been around this block more than once. Undoubtedly so. I defined the term, as I understand it, when I first started this blog. And just this past year, J. Mark Bertrand and I discussed the subject in conjunction with his book Rethinking Worldview.

But maybe this is one of those subjects that can never be discussed enough. I mean, we’re talking about the basic framework upon which all the rest of our beliefs hang. On top of that, the culture in which we live is racing further and further from a Christian worldview, so it seems to me that this discussion should be ongoing.

I ran across an event recorded in the Gospel of Luke that made me realize Jesus’s followers when He walked on earth faced some of the same issues Christians today face. I’m thinking here of our need to separate the trappings of cultural Christianity from an actual Christian worldview.

Too often people, both Christians and non-Christians, have this external do’s-and-don’t list associated with Christianity. Case in point: when I mentioned in the newspaper office that I would be attending a Christian writers’ conference, one editor immediately responded to the effect that they better start watching their language. Clearly, to him Christian meant something about being offended at bad language.

But back to the Biblical example. Jesus sent out seventy of his followers to preach, heal, cast out demons. Told them to go all over. Told them to take no money, food, change of clothes, nothing. Told them to stay with the first home they came across in a city. AND told them to eat whatever was set before them.

Why this last? It dawned on me, some of those seventy might have been offended if they knew they were eating food that didn’t adhere to Jewish dietary laws. So Jesus told them, essentially, don’t ask. Don’t research the matter. Take what they give you and don’t worry about whether or not the food passes “kosher” requirements.

On the other hand, Jesus also told the seventy to shake the dust from their feet on their way out of any city that didn’t accept them.

The point is, What divided the seventy from those showered with dust was not to be a matter of food.

Soon after recounting this event, Luke chronicles a parable Jesus told, one we commonly refer to as the Good Samaritan. Most noticeable to me as I read it was that the priest and the Levite who did not help the mugging victim were most likely concerned with their own safety and/or their own ceremonial purity. They well might have been doing what Jesus told the seventy NOT to do—ducking out of relationship for fear of breaking a Jewish law.

It strikes me, then, that we Christians of the twenty-first century must not accept a definition that marginalizes what we believe. A Christian is NOT defined as a person who reads the Bible every day, doesn’t drink, cuss, snort, and who shows up at church at least once a week. Mind you, that actually does describe me, so I am not advocating their opposites.

But the key is, those externals don’t define me as a Christian. My relationship with God does—a relationship I enjoy solely because Jesus Christ willingly took my just due, swapping in His righteousness instead.

That’s who any Christian is, and it colors how we see Truth.

Scene vs. Narrative, Part 3

I mentioned yesterday that I’d made a comment in response to Dave Long’s post at Faith in Fiction about the use of narrative and exposition. Mostly I quoted from one of my favorite writing instructors. As I did a search of my archives, I did not uncover a single reference to this writer. Hard for me to imagine that I haven’t mentioned her here before.

I’m referring to Monica Wood, author of Description, (Writers Digest, 1995). By that publication date, you can see that, in all likelihood, she was operating in the writing era before the emphasis on all things short and quick. Still, I think her advice is sound. Here’s the basics of my response to Dave’s post:

It’s just that there’s a way to do exposition and narrative well and a way to do it so that the story suffers.

I’ve read some beautiful prose that really doesn’t belong in my opinion. Not in a novel. Not as it appeared anyway.

Maybe it’s just what I like, but I’ve bought into some of the principles Monica Wood teaches in her book entitled Description. For example:
“Forward movement in fiction is twofold: physical and emotional …Stories move forward most seamlessly when plot and character mesh.”

Then later: “There is no greater (nor annoying) motion-stopper than immobile chunks of physical description … Deliver physical characteristics a few at a time, and the character in question becomes much more seeable.”

And from the beginning of the chapter on forward motion: “Don’t ask who your character is; ask what your character does.”

And those lines in a book on description! 😮 But don’t get me wrong. Wood clearly believes narrative has a place. From the chapter entitled “Showing and Telling”:

[Referencing a previous example] all this “showing” is taking the spotlight away from someone else who is more important. Besides, too much showing can start to seem self-conscious, as if you’re brandishing your arsenal of similes and metaphors just for the heck of it. Your characters might even disappear in the process. Don’t let your prose style overwhelm the story you want to tell.

Too much telling can flatten your story, too much showing can overwhelm it … A combination of showing and telling usually yields the best description.

Perhaps that combination, once favoring narrative, now favors scene, but I think the combination is still necessary. More from Wood:

Scenes have to be relieved by spots of narrative, though, or your story will never end … You can suggest the torpor of the long afternoon without subjecting the unfortunate readers to a torpid scene.

So maybe there really is no “versus” in fiction when it comes to narrative and scene. But I still need to click on that link Dave posted and read what J. Mark Bertrand had to say about the subject. Could be I’ll have more thoughts on the subject tomorrow.

Published in: on April 15, 2008 at 10:19 am  Comments (2)  
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