12/03/2007

Christ Figure or Christian Figure

The Christ figure or the Christian figure

I don't know what my problem is exactly, but the depictions of Lost Souls in stories simply fascinate me. There's something about a Lost Soul, someone who is utterly destroyed, confused, oppressed, in darkness, that of course reminds me of a Lost Sheep or of sheep without a shepherd.

When I see a television documentary about a prostitute, a petty thief, a prisoner, a molested kid who grows up to be a male prostitute, my heart goes out to them. Generally, it takes a lot to make me dislike them, and unless they are torturers, molesters, or murderers the disgust factor just isn't there.

I suspect this is because I'm a Christian. The whole saved-by-grace kind of thing. After all, our dear and wonderful Lord hung naked between two thieves, killed wrongfully by capital punishment, with a supposedly fallen woman as a comforter in his death. But I suspect this love for the fallen might have another cause. I'm a writer. The artistic soul often tends to veer toward the wounded, the alienated, and the outcast. I also grew up with some pretty wounded folks...folks many Christians would not really hang out with, much less write about.

Our Lord, as Yeats said, "pitched his tent in the place of excrement." Imagine heaven in its white purity. Imagine the filth of earth in all its sins. Earth is so sinful and dirty and filthy that even the most perfect righteous person is unclean and their righteousness like filthy rags. But what lifts us out of this dirt? The Love of God shed abroad in our hearts for God and for God's fallen sheep. And our faith in God's love for us.

Sometimes when I've finished reading a book written by a Christian writer, I find that the character's goodness has turned me off. I feel often that I have not read a book about the gospel of God's love toward us, but a book about a person becoming good. I feel as if, under the guise or showing the gospel, the author has written a book which led me to the tree of knowledge of good and evil instead of the tree of life. I feel as if the writer has written a book that shows me a Christ figure instead of a Christian figure.

I often wonder why so many main characters in Christian fiction, seem to be more like Christ than the Lost Sinner. Perhaps, unlike Christ, we cannot "condescend" (an old and lovely word, that) into the lives of those unlike us. Perhaps being in the dingy mind of a sinner is just too dark for us. Perhaps we identify too much with the Pharisees and still don't understand the essence of the gospel: our conversion is a conversion from our own righteousness and dead works to believing in God's love for us through the life and death of Jesus Christ.

Several Christians have not liked the way my main character, Loic, behaves after his converstion. They think he ought to behave better. I try not to write characters who are perfect. The first is my own issue: I don't like the idea of writing a perfect man. Human hearts lust. If they don't lust, they compare. And all too often, women romance writers seem to fall into the habit of falling in love with their main male characters...as if their main male characters are the literary man of their dreams. It's a subtle act of carnal concupiscence but it happens very often. Yes, I know men can write and read books without being in love with their male lead but the women writers I have known seem to need to be somewhat in love with a character in a book in order to read his story. This is a kind of lust and daydream I simply don't want to indulge in.

But the other reason is this: I'm a Christian, someone who continues to sin even after my conversion. I honestly wish I were perfect. But I am not. I muddle through with my brightest light being that God loves me. I am a writer, and so I can only tell about my own life, and maybe my readers will judge my characters badly. Or maybe they will identify with them, or maybe they will understand them. My hope, however, is that they will look up from my book with a loving heart that doesn't expect perfection from their neighbor or brother in Christ. Although we all have the mind of Christ and are being renewed everyday by His Living Word, only Christ is the true Christ figure. We and our brothers and sisters in Christ are nothing more or less than Little Christs, believers who are learning to love our neighbors as ourselves instead of measuring them by some standard of perfection. When I write, my only hope is that my readers will walk away from my books knowing how to love. And if we can love an imperfect character in a novel or in the Bible (Lot's wife, Job's wife, Hagar, Michal) we are well on our way to doing learning how to love.

Often we Christians say that non-Christians dislike us because we are so like Christ. But that isn't true. In fact, it is usually the opposite. They dislike us because we do not show the love of Christ. We often stand afar off from people we consider sinful and we often have a holier-than-thou attitude because we truly believe in our good works. And the writings of Christians often show this lack of understanding of the gospel of God's love.

Thank you dear Lord Jesus for teaching us how to love the lost and the saved the way you love us, and not with our own human measures.

14 comments:

Deborah Cullins Smith said...

Wow, Carole. I never thought about it like that. I guess most romance writers DO write like they're in love with their main male character! But I completely agree with you -- I don't like reading about squeaky-clean Christians. I'm FAR from perfect, and I can become easily discouraged if I'm made to feel that my life should be this wide, smoothly-paved super-highway. Too often, I feel I inhabit the rut-filled, gravel backroads, complete with potholes and ten-foot deep ditches on all sides, and rotted wooden bridges spanning raging rivers thrown in for good measure. So why would I want to read (or write) about people who have few problems in their own lives? Or those who laugh in the face of problems, pray, and POOF! problems disappear? That's not MY life.

Nope. Give me a character who tries, fails, falls down, cries, gets back up and tries again, face-plants into a briar patch, cries out to God for rescue, finds help or somehow crawls out, praises God, then does something really stupid, and has to repent.... Repeat more of the same! THAT'S my life. That's what I can relate to. I believe that if we offer gritty, believable characters to our readers, they'll come back time and time again for more. There are enough papier-mache characters out there.

CaroleMcDonnell said...

Hi Deborah:

Thanks so much for this. I was kinda dreading a negative response.

One complaint I've heard from folks about Christian romance or mainstream christian fiction is that "nothing happens." Can't tell you how many times I've sat through some story only to have it come to the end...and all I can say is: "Is that all?" Sometimes the trials of the main character are just so trivial, I'm like... doesn't this writer understand stress and true troubles?

-C

lelia said...

Beautiful post, Carole.

Oh, and belatedly, I loved the richness of the cultures in Wind Follower. I loved how you wove in scripture in interesting ways.
I was also excruciatingly embarrassed by all the explicit sex. But then, I am a WASP, a prude with Asperger's Syndrome. Where I'm from, sex is a PRIVATE issue. I have never talked to anyone about my wonderful sex life, and guess what, I'm not going to start now. At our children's marriages, we gave them a copy of the Act of Marriage.
I'm not saying you should not have written what you wrote. I'm just telling you my reaction. And most of the book I did love.
Ha! Last week, I was privileged to be at the birth of our granddaughter, Xyia Yasmeen Foreman. So was my husband, the neighbors, some friends including the new boyfriend, and lots of video recorders recording from all sorts of angles, and I was thinking, My God, shall we start inviting in random strangers as well? Did we all need to see all of this?
Xyia weighed nearly ten pounds, is gorgeous, and loves my baby massages.

CaroleMcDonnell said...

Oh Lelia, you made me laugh. Thanks so much for liking the book. Sorry about the sex scenes. I think I used to be a prude but after being a teaching assistant in a high school I lost all prudery.

So you have a wonderful sex life, uh? Am glad to hear some of us Christians have a good sex life. Seriously, though, I've dealt with so many sexually-wounded souls that I don't think I can write a wonderful love scene. If you noticed, the sex scenes in WF were all full of human grief, sin, pain, woundedness.

In the first scene, a selfish kid wants to impregnate his betrothed so she won't leave him. Or it's a rape, or it's two grieving people trying to build their shattered life. I suspect the sex life of Job and his wife would have been very bitter-sweet.

Sex is an important part of modern life. So many wounded folks. If Christians don't speak to the issue in fiction -- in a world that loves stories-- the fiction of the world will give the wounded souls "answers" that just don't work. God made me to walk the borderlands because there are so many wounded people there. I'm very happy about that. I'm so glad you liked the book and could enjoy it in spite of the sex scenes. -C

CaroleMcDonnell said...

PS: Deborah,
I am totally convinced that the sweet little sentimental love stories in Christian romances involving perfect males have caused more women to be dissatisfied with their love life than my sex scenes which are so full of woundedness and would never make anyone start comparing her husband to some perfect person who simply does not exist. But I don't think many Christians can understand that. I remember a friend who saw only G movies. She watched Home Alone and for the next three months all she did was talk about how bad her house was and how lovely the house in the movie was. But she thought the movie had left her untouched because she had watched a G movie. IF God were to challenge us Christians with our pharisical obedience to external rules, we would definitely come up short. Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.

CaroleMcDonnell said...

Lelia!

Forgot to add: Congratulations, grandma! -C

karen_m said...

Carole, if you're not careful you're really going to get me going on the whole "romance male" thing. My husband and I were talking about that type of character, how they are idealized to the point of surreality. They certainly don't reflect actual masculinity. In fact, apart from the obvious physical differences and the typical macho posturing of most romantic leads, most of the appealing characteristics exhibited by these male characters are in reality feminine characteristics--- sensitivity, intuition, etc.
And like you said, women fall in love emotionally because that's what does it for us. The sexual aspect isn't nearly as much of a high as the relationship lust.

But I'd take a realistic, gritty character any day.

I do take issue with you on one point, Carole...I think your sex scenes were wonderful precisely because you made them realistic. I thought the scene when Satha and Loic were grieving and try to reconnect via intimacy was just beautiful because it was heartbreaking. Some books/movies tend to treat sex as if it exists in some sort of vacuum where it's not affected by everyday life. But sexuality is intricately woven through human existence and reflects that existence in all its complexity and yes, brokenness.

I loved the post, Carole. Now I'd better come up with something good tomorrow....

Andrea Graham said...

I agree about the effect idealized romances have, but in most cases, detailed, graphic, "showing" depictions of sexual acts of any kind are both inappropriate and usually unnecessary. I consider painting such images in people's minds irresponsible in a culture where more and more are caught in the trap of porn addiction, sexual lust and fantasy and all that jazz.

Besides that, I have no more business being in your characters' bedrooms than I do in yours or Leila's--and that is especially true if the story uses view-point narration rather than omniscient. Suppose you're free to disagree, but that's my conviction.

Likewise, Christian's sin and hypocrisy, especially in terms of lacking love, *do* blasphemy the name of our Lord. The bible said it first, in Paul's letter to the Romans.

But the fact is, the Lord was also not kidding when He told us no servant is greater than his Master and that if they hated Him, they will hate us, too.

The way I see it, half the church has fallen into the danger of assuming every time someone hates us, etc, it's because of Christ's warning in John--and the other half assuming it's because of what Paul said in Romans.

In reality, both dangers are very real. And as a rule of thumb (hat tip: CS Lewis) whatever issue we're worked all up about, we usually have the exact opposite issue in our own lives. Due to the way Satan works, we are all at risk of assuming someone's offended at us for the exact opposite scriptural reason than is the actual reason in that instant.

CaroleMcDonnell said...

Hi Karen:

Thanks so much. Yes, I often find so much carnality in those sentimentalized Christian depiction that I tend to think of Christian romances as dangerous things as if we're being inundanted with some pious woman's daydream of the right guy. A real love of the Creature kinda thing. Raven-haired perfect macho men being there for his woman and embodying the American strong but silent yet emotionally available spirit. It's pitiful. Romance is a pretty scary genre in that respect and Christian women write it with such aplomb one can only think that they think sensual longing is not a sin, as long as bodies don't tough. -C

CaroleMcDonnell said...

Andrea: I think the Christian world focuses way too much on sex.

As for Christians being in someone else's bedroom, I truly think we ought to be there cause that's where a lot of Christians (with our many divorces) are having problems. And again, if the worldly writer writes stories about sex, there ought to be a Christian response.

Wind Follower has ten pages --if that-- on sex. Sex as manipulation, sex as an opportunity for demonic possession. Sex as cohersion. Sex as rape. Sex as woundedness. Nowhere is sex shown as temptation. But because so many Christians only look on the appearances, most of the reviewers have not even seen that I am actually trying to show the troubles that can occur with sex. It's as if they have been taught to see only the forest without examining the trees.

I have way more pages about spiritual deception, way more pages about family, love, respect for parents, guilt, the powerlessness of revenge, etc and many Christian reviewers have not focused on those. The secular readers, on the other hand, focus on the spiritual issues and the emotional issues. It only goes to show that as a religious culture, we have trained ourselves to be very sex-minded. I mean...when I show reviews of my book to people, it becomes so clear that the secular folks look at the book with an eye on the spiritual. But the Christians are looking at it with an eye on the sexual. It makes us Christians look like ninnies who don't know how to understand a book spiritually...sex-crazed carnal ninnies with only sex on our minds.

Headless Unicorn Guy said...

And all too often, women romance writers seem to fall into the habit of falling in love with their main male characters...as if their main male characters are the literary man of their dreams. It's a subtle act of carnal concupiscence but it happens very often.

Well, they DO say that the target audience for Romance is "bored housewives". Apparently getting out of their mundane lives with a little vicarious adultery. Which makes me wonder about Christian Romance Fiction -- is it targeted towards "Christian Bored Housewives", i.e. "Just like Harlequin, except CHRISTIAN!"?

One complaint I've heard from folks about Christian romance or mainstream christian fiction is that "nothing happens." ... Sometimes the trials of the main character are just so trivial, I'm like... doesn't this writer understand stress and true troubles?

In short, No. Once you're Born Again, Everything Is Perfect Forevermore. Or at least you have to pretend so.

Problem is, Christian Fiction has to pass muster of Church Ladies and other Professional Weaker Brethren, so any "stress and true troubles" gets censored out. One Christian genre writer's list I belong to is in a knock-down-drag-out right now about "Sex in Christian Fiction".

My best primer on the subject remains Dr Morden's "Sex, Death, and Christian Fiction" at his "Book of Morden" website.

Headless Unicorn Guy said...

Am glad to hear some of us Christians have a good sex life. Seriously, though, I've dealt with so many sexually-wounded souls that I don't think I can write a wonderful love scene. -- Carole

I'm a 52-year-old virgin (ex-kid genius, too much the nerd to be attractive to women) who's been so burned out on exposure to S*E*X (including things that would make the Marquis de Sade vomit), that I'm not sure I can, either.

Which presents a problem in my writing; one of my planned story arcs ends with the night-after-the-wedding consummation between the two main characters. (It's not on the wedding night because the wedding and reception wiped them out completely; that night they just dropped into the formal/ceremonial Marriage Bed and just conked out.) I may have to invoke Murphy's Law and go for the humor angle to pull it off. (They're non-humans who "tie" like canids; when the bride loses it in mid-mount due to her past baggage, the groom can't just pull out, run, and wait until bucking psychovixen calms back down...)

I am totally convinced that the sweet little sentimental love stories in Christian romances involving perfect males have caused more women to be dissatisfied with their love life... -- Carole

Probably all bound up with the "Jesus is My Boyfriend" attitude you get in so many Christian singles. How can a mere mortal like me hope to measure up to That?

In fact, apart from the obvious physical differences and the typical macho posturing of most romantic leads, most of the appealing characteristics exhibited by these male characters are in reality feminine characteristics--- sensitivity, intuition, etc. -- Karen M

Which just doesn't work IRL. Women say they want "sensitive New Age guys" who are like "one of the girls", but it's the abusive creeps who trigger the automatic "OOOOO! MY SOULMATE!" reactions.

It makes us Christians look like ninnies who don't know how to understand a book spiritually...sex-crazed carnal ninnies with only sex on our minds. -- Carole

i.e. an insane Authority you want to kill with an application of Dust. Jollyblogger makes a similar side point in this posting re the Golden Compass Dust-up.

And this is a LOT longer than I originally intended to comment, but Carole's thread really struck a nerve in me...

Headless Unicorn Guy said...

Too often, I feel I inhabit the rut-filled, gravel backroads, complete with potholes and ten-foot deep ditches on all sides, and rotted wooden bridges spanning raging rivers thrown in for good measure. So why would I want to read (or write) about people who have few problems in their own lives? Or those who laugh in the face of problems, pray, and POOF! problems disappear? -- Deborah

What I call "Five Fast Praise-the-LORDs Will Solve Everything" Syndrome. (Named after an actual quote from one of its most rabid advocates some 30 years ago.) Normally coupled with denunciation of What Must Be Secret Sin In Your Life when said Magic Words don't work for you.

Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.

TWCP Authors said...

So why would I want to read (or write) about people who have few problems in their own lives? --Deb

Oh Deb, I am precisely the opposite. I read (and watch movies) for entertainment, to whisk me away from all my own troubles. Temporary depression doesn't equal entertainment in my books! I don't want to be made to cry or to hurt. I stopped reading/ watching animal books/ movies 30 years ago for precisely this reason. Yup, I am a wimp-cubed.

And, romance isn't even on my radar. Don't much care about fictional characters' lives, would rather hear true stories. Give me a good spy story or action/ thriller where my senses are stimulated with a minimum of emotion involved. Guilty again, this time of being 2-dimensional.

I can see too much of the sad character in my own life. Oft times, I relate WAY too well. And, I know that real life doesn't have easy answers so I am left depressed.

It is funny that I don't like drama/ tragedy written in modern times, because I am a "student" of Soviet literature where everything is dreary and seems hopeless. Try A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch or Crime and Punishment to see what I mean.

Or those who laugh in the face of problems, pray, and POOF! problems disappear? -- Deborah

Of course, this take on a story sounds like the H-Romance method. Nope, after getting my fill of formulaic romance in my teens, this doesn't work for me either. But, there is a happy medium.