Fantasy Friday: The Reality Of Hope

Novel cover collage2Christian fiction isn’t realistic, or so some charge. After all, there’s no cussing, no sex, and everything turns out happily ever after. The last point actually isn’t true, depending, of course, on what kind of “happy” a person is talking about. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Today at Speculative Faith our guest blogger, Shannon McDermott (yes, the same Shannon McDermott who is up for this month’s CSFF Award), wrote an inspiring post entitled “The Echoes of Christmas” in which she discusses what a story would look like if it were written as an expression of Christmas-all-year-long. She pulled out three responses that Christmas generates: joy, wonder, and hope.

For some reason, that triplet rang true to me, but especially hope. In some ways the world this year seemed more prone to despair. The US supposedly is hurtling toward a fiscal cliff, children were gunned down in their school, and no one seems to have an answer for our ailments, or at least one we can agree on.

Stories seem to reflect this kind of harsh reality, whether novels like The Hunger Games or TV programs like Revolution. And in many ways, Christian writers are being told to get with the program. If feels very much like a Job’s-wife kind of admonition–curse God and die. Except for the dying part. But curse, cuss, swear–let the world know that Christians see the way things really are.

Oddly, I don’t hear those same voices saying Christian writers should show the reality of abortion in their stories, or homelessness, or drug trafficking or gang violence or illegal immigration or homosexuality or corporate fraud or government corruption or divorce or an almost endless list of “real.” Instead we’re told, in the same manner as a dripping faucet, that Christian fiction needs to use cussing or cursing or swearing in order to be real.

And sex. Once in a while we’re told that sex ought to get into the stories, though no one seems to think graphic sex scenes are OK.

I have to say, I’m stuck on the definition of “real.”

Over and over I read from Christians in the writing community that the Bible is one of the darkest books around, that it didn’t sugarcoat such things as rape or adultery or murder. That look at the Bible, however, isn’t comprehensive. The Bible doesn’t have a “The End” after the story of David having Bathsheba’s husband killed after he’d slept with her. There isn’t even a “The End” after Judah gets led away into exile or one after Jesus’s crucifixion. There isn’t one after Stephen was martyred or Paul was arrested.

In truth, the Bible is all about hope–in the Old Testament, God’s chosen people hoped for the coming Messiah. And guess what the New Testament is about? The first coming and now the expectant waiting of the Church for the return of that same Messiah.

We long and we hope. We suffer and we hope. We sin and we hope.

As far as I’m concerned, stories that show or engender hope are real stories.

Cussing/cursing/swearing is not what a story is about. There are lots of ways to make a story seem real as far as how characters are painted. And people don’t generally pick a novel to read because they like the cussing/cursing/swearing. The choose a book because they believe they’ll like the story.

I suggest stories with hope will ring the most true and seem the most real.

Published in: on December 28, 2012 at 6:39 pm  Comments (8)  
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When God Shows Up In Fiction

In “Realism In Fiction,” I pointed out that rarely, if ever, do writers advocating for realism in human characters indicate that there needs to be more realism in our representation of God and His work in the world.

I find this imbalance disquieting. For one thing, I think it takes little talent to put four-letter words in the mouth of a reprehensible character, something realist advocates say is necessary to make such characters believable. Use of language in that way is cheap and easy. In contrast, I think it takes an amazing amount of skill to make the invisible God appear in a novel as a present and active part of the story.

But more importantly, I am troubled that we seem to care more that humans are depicted accurately than we care whether or not God is depicted accurately.

Perhaps the difficulty of the task discourages some writers from trying. After all, if we ask, as C. S. Lewis did for Narnia, how would God show up in a world such as this, we see that He does so through His word, through the preaching of His word, through the Holy Spirit speaking to individuals in ways that are consistent with His word.

I suggest those are the ways that contemporary Christian fiction has shown God since its inception, but these are the very elements that earned Christian stories the “preachiness” label. I tend to think that execution was more at fault than the traditional means by which God relates to His people, but I don’t think I’m going to convince very many people.

Hence, if a novel shows a character listening to a sermon, the cry of “preachiness” is sure to follow. Same if the character reads a passage from the Bible or a friend shares a Biblical truth. In other words, our fear of falling under the condemnation of being preachy has nearly handcuffed Christian authors from showing in a story how God works in our world.

In addition, few writers seem willing to tackle the hard truths — the fictional Jim Elliots or Corrie ten Booms or Joni Eareckson Tadas or George Mullers. It’s easier to say God loves you when no one dies. But the truth is, people do die and God still loves the world.

Even more difficult would be the fictional Ananias and Sapphira who received a death sentence for their conspiratorial sin. How hard to show God’s wrath and judgment. Those aren’t twenty-first century user-friendly images of God. Can we pull off showing the things about God that seem to collide with what we want Him to be like?

When I write posts like this, I am so thankful that I write fantasy, because I have to say, I don’t know how I would show God in this world. I love showing Him in a unique way in fantasy. But in a contemporary story, it’s a whole lot harder, a much greater challenge.

I know a writer who is tackling a difficult story without softening the lens or putting a slight glow over God’s head. I haven’t read her manuscript, so I don’t know how it’s working out, but I commend her efforts.

Do readers want to think deeply about God, to moved past the glad-to-meet-you stage, even past the acquaintance stage? I think there are indications that make me think so, but even if not, I’d still say we need stories that make the attempt. That’s where realism really lies, and it’s a lot more important — eternally important — than whether or not we show a human character slugging back a beer.

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See also “God In Contemporary Fiction, Another Take”

Published in: on July 12, 2011 at 6:23 pm  Comments (11)  
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Realism In Fiction

Don Quixote de la Mancha started out being a realist, but in the end he lost what was most true.

Today much discussion in the Christian writing community focuses on realism, or telling the truth in fiction.

Some authors have banded together to support their “edgier” brand of fiction — by which they apparently mean stories that don’t hesitate to include sexual passion without actually showing sex. (The only novel I read from these particular authors included lots of desire and passionate kissing but no nudity or copulation).

Others push to do away with sanitized language. Sinners should talk like sinners, the reasoning goes. Anything less isn’t realistic.

Some complaints claim erroneously that certain topics are off limits in Christian fiction — prostitution or sex trafficking, for example. These are real issues, these critics say, and the topics should be dealt with in story, and they should be handled in a realistic way.

Still others falsely believe that a certain conservative value set must be adhered to in Christian fiction — no dancing, drinking, or smoking for instance. Those who push for realism say that stories should show these human activities in a realistic way without making value judgments.

I understand these arguments which often come from other writers wishing to see Christians create stories of high caliber. Realistic stories are the present gold standard, not morality tales. Consequently, these writers are making a plea, in their minds, for the best kind of writing.

What I have asked more than once, however, is why these writers who want realism in fiction don’t demand as much realism in the depiction of God as they do of human behavior.

Why are we not up in arms about how shallow or weak or absent God comes off in novel after novel bearing the Christian label? We complain about humans appearing out of touch with the world or behaving in ways that are not consistent with reality, but we are silent about God appearing as out of touch with His creation or inconsistent with His self-revelation.

God might be incidental to a story, an add-on “faith element,” and no one is complaining. No one is standing up and saying how such stories aren’t real.

Why is it OK to do a poor job of showing God in a real way, but it is not OK to show humans in a real way? And if it’s not, why aren’t we saying so with the same frequency we decry the absence of realism in human behavior?

Is it because we think humans are more real than God? Is it because we don’t believe God plays a part in the gritty details of life we want to show in our novels?

I’m grasping for ideas here.

As I see it, pushing for realism ought to start with showing God as He is. How can anything else, then, come off as better than it is? Man next to a pure and holy God isn’t going to look sanitized or righteous.

The best way to paint a realistic picture of Man is to first paint a realistic picture of God. Without showing God as He really is, stories will never be realistic. They might be partially real, but they will never be telling the whole truth.

Having said that, I think it’s important to add, stories don’t show all truth. I don’t think that’s possible.

However, stories should show truth about whatever subject they cover. Since Christian fiction is often about God, doesn’t it seem logical, then, that the most important truth Christian fiction tells is about God?

Who cares if the characters swear or don’t swear if God comes off looking incidental? Who cares if a character drinks or doesn’t drink if God is absent in a “Christian” novel?

The one thing that is the distinctive of Christian fiction is the one thing that only Christian fiction can do — tell the truth about God.

Some fiction might be moral. Some might focus on psychological or physical aspects of humanity rather than spiritual. Stories dealing in those realms should be realistic.

But how can we be outraged that a foul-mouthed character doesn’t speak in four-letter words when we aren’t outraged that our sovereign God isn’t depicted as just and powerful and righteous?

In our quest for realism in fiction, it seems to me, we’re aiming our lances at windmills.

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For further discussion, see also “When God Shows Up In Fiction”

Published in: on July 11, 2011 at 8:07 pm  Comments (19)  
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