Since we're discussing Christian speculative fiction, I think it only fitting that we mention a man who is undoubtedly the 'godfather' of all spec fiction. Frank Peretti spent over 150 consecutive weeks on the CBA Best-Seller List for his first novel, This Present Darkness in 1986, thus introducing us to a whole new genre – the supernatural thriller. In the small town of Ashton, a skeptical reporter and a dedicated pastor find themselves in the middle of a terrible New Age plot to subjugate the townspeople. The book represented the most insightful novel in spiritual warfare since C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters. His follow-up novel, Piercing the Darkness, established Peretti as more than a one-shot wonder. Since his initial success, he has followed up with bestsellers such as Tilly, The Oath, The Visitation, Prophet, Monster, and most recently, House, with co-author Ted Dekker.
My personal favorite is still The Oath. Wildlife biologist Steve Benson visits the Pacific Northwest town of Hyde River to investigate the death of his brother Cliff, supposedly by a bear attack. Working with Sheriff's Deputy Tracy Ellis, he uncovers more than he bargained for. After years of seeing strange incidents swept under the rug, Tracy ruffles feathers by revealing some of the town secrets – the deep, dark legends passed down for generations – placing them in danger from far more than angry citizens. The only other person willing to talk to them openly is the town "crazy", a born again Christian named Levi Cobb. What these three unlikely companions uncover could sign their death warrants at the hands of a madman – or the claws of a legendary beast.
After reading this book at least a dozen times, I purchased the audio book and listened to it until I could almost quote the lines with Joseph Campanella, the actor who read this masterpiece so brilliantly. It remains my favorite piece of spec fiction ever written.
Whether Peretti is writing about fallen angels, Bigfoot, dragons, or haunted houses, he spins a web so sticky you'll not be able to extricate yourself! With bigger-than-life characters so alive they leap from the page, this author spins a plot that keeps you riveted until the very last sentence, bringing spiritual warfare and truth to a new level of awareness.
Frank Peretti paved the super-highway for those of us who love spec fic and supernatural thrillers. Thank you, Mr. Peretti! And thank You, Lord, for sending us a writer who shows us that our imaginations can still run wild without resorting to worldly themes.
email Deb Cullins-Smith
Paul said that everything was permissible, but not everything was useful to our walk with God. With that in mind, I'd like to examine the limits of Christian speculative fiction.
Christian writing, fictional or not, should be faithful to what God has revealed. In 2 Cor 10:4-5, Paul emphasized the importance of keeping our minds subject to Christ. Now, ultimately all fiction is speculative: it involves people, places, events, and/or dialog that someone made up. But in speculative fiction, elements not found in the real world arise: aliens, elves, time travel, etc. Can a Christian include such features in his writing? I think so, though only by either ignoring the theological implications (the popular route) or finding theologically sound approaches (uncommon, but more satisfying, IMHO).
There's no shame in not having all your ducks in a row; ultimately we all fail in our attempts to reflect the truth. But even God doesn't get that fussy about details most of the time. Just look at Jesus' parables, especially the one about the merciless debtor (Matthew 18: 21-35). Read it through and reflect on the theology. There are at least two bumps:
1. In verse 30, the just-forgiven servant refuses to forgive the debt of his fellow servant. Instead, he casts him into debtors' prison, which in v. 34 symbolizes Hell. If we're being picky about implications, we'll probably decide that Jesus meant our unforgiveness can overrule God's grace: if I refuse to forgive you, I can send you to Hell, or at least Purgatory, though the same will happen to me.
2. In verse 34, the original debtor is himself thrown into prison until he can pay off his debt, which an overzealous interpreter could take to mean that you can eventually work your way out of Hell.
Was Jesus guilty of bad theology? No. Careless plotting? No. The moral is, "Don't push any story too far!" When God wanted to encapsulate truth in a single place, the result was not a story but a Person. So it follows that stories will have elements we shouldn't take too seriously; yet these are precisely the points some critics seize on to discredit stories and genres they don't like. Don't treat a secondary element as though it were primary.
Finding sound approaches
While no one can be held responsible for every possible implication of their work, we should avoid elements that contradict Scripture (not human tradition). If God took the time to directly state something in the Bible, such as how Mary, a virgin (Luke 1: 27, 34) became pregnant with Jesus (v. 35), I would put that off limits. But if God doesn't directly address something, chances are it doesn't matter so much, and we may speculate. In coming weeks I'll explore what the Bible does and doesn't specifically say about various hot topics, such as aliens, elves, magic, evolution, horror stories, and End-time prophecy. But next time, we'll look at "real" versus "literary."
In my youth there existed a large demographic of Bible-believers who referred to Christian Rock & Roll as demonic. Their argument ran something like this: If you’d lived in the puritanical 50s like we had, and you saw Elvis-the-Pelvis move like that, you’d have crossed yourself with holy water.
Given the times, I probably would have.
But this is a different millenium. Every television two-minute-commercial-break, North America is spammed with sexually-explicit-cubed. Our animated-G-rated children’s movies are seeded with adult comments once-per-minute, yet we’re trying to raise a new generation of ambassadors from Heaven in this place?
We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God was making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God (2nd Corinthians five, verse twenty, (NIV)).
Me-thinks that if there were a New-World to which we could all sail and start anew, most would be packin’ even as I type. But we’re fresh outta’ new worlds. We can no longer flee the Biblical command to be in the world but not of it. Since we’re stuck here, what do Christian children think when we allow Cinderella, Snow White, and The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, but curse Harry Potter? Why is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea okay, but The Matrix bad, and why on earth do Christians file Role-Playing-Games in the same mental box as Ouija boards? With these kind of confusing messages, how will our children be equipped to make proper distinctions when encountering the mysterious?
Now back to Elvis. In the late 70s and early 80s, when it finally occurred to Christian record-producers that they could imitate pop-music and reap healthy profits (yes, it took some twenty-five years—we are a slow bunch) they met with outcry from old-school Bible-believers. Rightly outraged grandparents argued that rock-music was of Satan, and could not glorify God.
Inanimate objects are neither morally Satanic nor Theistic. Art forms may be employed to either worship or blaspheme.
Yet in our new millenium, some Christians still bemoan that which threatens them, that which they don’t understand. Is rock-music inherently evil?
What if it’s Christian rock?
Have they ever read any Creed lyrics (my personal favorite)?
Are ideas of intelligent alien life-forms blasphemous?
Do you believe in angels?
Is magic the equivelant of Satanism?
What about Fairy Godmothers and the Good Witch of the North?
I am not saying that morality is shades of grey, it is indeed very black and white. I am saying that we who are quick to judge must not do so from instinctive and ignorant fear.
Our sub-culture is in full retreat from popular culture. We're falling into the Islamic mindset of idealizing an earlier golden-age that never existed. We're bubble-wrapping our children, and buying handguns.
With her children’s best interests enshrined, our mother secluded my sisters and I behind a trusty sub-cultural curtain. She ignored Second Corinthians: three through six: For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weaopns we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we will take captive every thought to make it obiedient to Christ. (NIV). Rather, Mom tucked us safely away within the folds of her Christian subculture.
Her problem was, we grew up, moved out, and faced the world, with wide eyes. She’d not thought that far ahead. Rather than exposing us to limited doses of the world, and entering into rational discussion, Mom forceably stuck our heads in the sand. Without revealing personal demons, suffice-it to say that my siblings and I met the real-world naked as a monk on brown-robe-laundry-day.
But Mom got one thing right—the exception to our cultural isolationism. She allowed us to play Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. I know, the unforgivable sin; take a deep breath and read-on.
She had faith in her ability to teach us the difference between reality and fantasy. She allowed us to fantasize, and therefore encouraged our imagination (the result is that I’m a novelist and my sister, Lydia, a poet).
Now, gaming did sneak past Mom's sensibilities. Once she'd heard controversial reports on AD&D, she became quite attentive of our hobby, feigning interest, asking confusing questions that had nothing to do with AD&D but everything to do with weirdness. Our confusion at her weirdness convinced Mom that we were just having fun. In the end she came away convinced that we were safe.
My point is that Harry Potter and The Matrix are discussion-points for Christian families, not taboo materials. Fantasy and Sci-Fi explore human ideas, as will our children. These genres seek answers to important questions, questions to which the Bible contains thunderous answers.
Someone once said that speculative fiction is the handmaiden of world-views. It explores the possibilities of thought, and His creation.
Sooner or later, our children will face these boundaries. They’ll face them either with, or without us. Parents too busy to provide real guidance will be ignored.
Since we have the wisdom of experience, the logical arguments of theologians, and the loving trust of our children, let’s not cement those ill-mannered rascals behind thought-proof walls. One day soon, big boys and girls be living on the other side.
I have always been a reluctant reader of Christian fiction. At least, the kind of fiction that touted itself as Christian. I read for entertainment, for learning; I want to be immersed and I want to experience. I don’t need gratuitous violence or sex but I do look for unadulterated, uncensored real life grit. And, I wasn’t finding it in Christian fiction.
I figured I wasn’t the only one, so I Googled the subject. I carefully sorted because I wasn’t looking for Christian-bashing, and came up with a few themes and comments from anonymous bloggers:
•A preponderance of shallow and obvious tales of morality
•Preach vs. entertain and allow the reader to learn
Too much of what passes for Christian writing is badly-written morality plays under another guise, and most of us don’t read them because we don’t like being preached at.
•Too much emphasis put on reading Christian authors because they are Christian authors
Too many people think because what they write has a “Christian theme” that Christians should buy it, even when the writing is really horrible, the plots contrived, and Deux [sic] Ex Machina reigns supreme.
•Acceptance of less than skilled writing, as long as it is “Christian,” by the Christian book industry
I’d rather read a good book (my definition) by anyone than a bad one by a “Christian” author.
The ranting of wild folks? Since I have experienced all the above (and don’t believe I am a wild folk!), I’d say they merely represent the feeling of an audience who demands good literature. Novel concept, eh?
After much reflection (not to mention guilt) about Christian literature, one day I experienced an epiphany . . . my reluctance stems from disappointing experiences—the story has a good premise, the introduction is riveting, I am seduced by the protagonist and then WHAM, predictability! Where is all the gritty description and action, the controversy? Contrived situations and problems with nice neat answers don’t engage readers.
I blame the lack of description, action, imagery on the book industry and on the authors who feel they have no option but to conform. With policies such as those adhered to by the CBA, there is no wonder that much of the ‘literature’ is watered down and shallow—reasonable attempts to show realism in life are taboo.
A current title of The Writers’ Café Press will be the antithesis of all that is lacking in too much Christian fiction. Light at the Edge of Darkness is one book that will help turn the tide of mediocrity—it will demonstrate that Biblical speculative fiction can entertain at the same time as being solidly grounded in Scripture. It will fit the criteria of “good Biblical Speculative fiction” first and foremost.
Light at the Edge of Darkness: release date February 2007
Light at the Edge of Darkness, the anthology you will hear frequently mentioned by bloggers here, is a collection of fantasy, horror, science fiction, end times fiction, etc. Well, as with many folks who write Speculative Fiction nowadays, two particular works had a profound impact on my writing aspirations. Anyone want to take a stab here? Congratulations! C.S. Lewis and Tokein it is! Pat yourself on the back and indulge in that can of pop you've been debating about all morning.
Oddly enough, the first three things I ever wrote were all science fiction. But unlike many other writers, I actually discovered the joy of writing BEFORE the joy of reading. I hated reading before I started to love writing (we're talking like 10-12 years old here). So, when I first picked up a fantasy story, let me tell you, it blew my mind. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Wow. To a child, wow.
So, many years later, after pouring through Terry Brooks, Robert Jordan, Isaac Asimov, Tokein, King, and a dozen other authors full of fantastical stories, I decided to get serious about writing. And what was the first thing I decided to pour myself into? Yup, Fantasy. And not just Fantasy, Epic Fantasy. We're talking the next Wheel of Time or Lord of the Rings or Dune realm of Epic Fantasy. Did I publish it? Heh heh... no. It's sitting in my saved files awaiting a major overhaul now that I've shaken off the writing rust and honed my skills a bit.
So, Fantasy in Ministry. How does any of my rambling tie into the title? Well, even though I've written horror and suspense of late, my heart lies with fantasy. And many of the elements in horror, especially, tie into fantasy. So, when faced with critics of Christian Speculative Fiction, the argument often arises that there can't be such a thing. Now, I'll completely ignore various aspects of many arguments for the sake of not consuming an entire day posting and giving you all something to actually respond to, and I'll focus on one thing that I think is essential to what we're trying to do here.
Putting Christ in Fantasy.
There are about a dozen different ways to do this (and I'm not going to get into discussions on them all today), but I don't believe you can have Biblical or Christian Spec Fiction without Christ. Now, that doesn't mean you bludgeon your readers over the head with the Bible, but it does mean that everything you publish should serve a purpose. Could that purpose just be to entertain? Well, sure... but should it?
What I would throw out there for consideration is this: As Christians, we believe in the Bible. We accept that it is the word of God, that it IS God. And as such, we believe that if we bring up our children in His ways, that his word will never depart from them as they grow. In essence, we plant the seeds of faith in them as children so those seeds will grow into faith as they mature. Then, even if they stray away (those blasted college years, right?) those seeds will stay with them.
So, when we write for Him, regardless of how we're approaching it, shouldn't we plant some seeds? With fantasy, we have such a golden opportunity to plant those seeds. In essence, we can minister to the unsuspecting through our imaginations. Drop an unreferenced scripture. Show a character living a Godly life. Retell a Bible story like David and Goliath or Samson and Delilah with modern language or a fantasy/future setting. Plant some seeds. While entertaining, you can also minister even if your reader doesn't know they're being fed.
And for your Christian readers, what better way to feel good about Biblical/Christian Spec Fic, than to walk away feeling that their seeds have been watered a little more?
I would love to hear your thoughts and opinions. There are so many sub topics within this topic that your comments may likely lead to a future post. Share away.