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Exploring Darkness Or Exploring Light

As I’ve noted before, Anne Rice has stated that her vampire books were actually explorations of the spiritual. Spiritual light or spiritual darkness? Some may say that an exploration of spiritual darkness must precede any look at spiritual light. I […]
| Jun 20, 2011 | No comments |

As I’ve noted before, Anne Rice has stated that her vampire books were actually explorations of the spiritual. Spiritual light or spiritual darkness?

Some may say that an exploration of spiritual darkness must precede any look at spiritual light. I suppose this might be one of those areas that differ from person to person, but I can’t help but wonder why we Christians aren’t exploring the light more than we are the darkness.

Corrie ten Boom

Certainly darkness is in the world. Yet when I think of darkness, some of the most uplifting, true stories I’ve read come to mind. Take Corrie ten Boom, for example. Without a doubt, her story contains horrific elements, including the inhuman conditions in a Nazi concentration camp and the death of her dear sister as a result.

But throughout, from the decision to help Jews, to Corrie’s release from the camp and her subsequent commitment to show the love and forgiveness of God to victim and victimizer alike, the story is infused with hope and promise and the sovereign hand of God over all circumstances.

Elisabeth Elliot

The story of Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Roger Youderian, and Pete Fleming is similar. These young missionaries, so committed to sharing the gospel with a group of people who had never heard of Jesus, died at the hands of the people they wanted to save. More astounding, Jim’s wife Elisabeth and Nate’s wife Rachel returned to the tribe, lived with them for two years, and saw many come to Christ. The forgiveness and love these women lived out in the midst of tragedy and loss is a revelation of God’s love and forgiveness.

Joni Eareckson Tada’s story is equally inspirational. Injured as a seventeen year old, Joni has lived as a quadriplegic for forty-five years.

Joni Eareckson Tada

Despite her disability, she shines the love of Jesus into the lives of hundreds of thousands through her writing, painting, and speaking. She has even put out a vocal recording and starred in the video of her life story. Perhaps her greatest work has been establishing Joni and Friends, an international disability center bringing hope and help to people throughout the world.

Hope. That seems to be a key thread that runs through these stories of triumph over tragedy. The darkness is very real in each one — Joni’s despair, the deaths of the missionaries and Corrie’s sister — but the triumph dominates the story.

The Hiding Place is not the story about Corrie’s sister dying but about God’s love and forgiveness manifested in an unspeakably cruel place.

Through Gates of Splendor is not a story about five twenty-something missionary men being killed but about the truth in this verse of the hymn from which the title of the book came:

We rest on Thee, our Shield and our Defender.
Thine is the battle, Thine shall be the praise;
When passing through the gates of pearly splendor,
Victors, we rest with Thee, through endless days.

Joni is not the story of a seventeen-year-old whose life caved in, but of a God who brings meaning and purpose out of suffering.

You might wonder why I’m taking a look at all these true stories in a post about speculative fiction. I see how inspirational the lives of these three who suffered greatly have been. They personally explored the light in the midst of the darkness of their real circumstances. The result has been phenomenal. They have pointed generations of people to Christ.

Why, then, would a fiction writer not want to adopt this model — an exploration of light in the midst of darkness? Why go the other route and spend pages and pages exploring the dark, even if the light comes filtering in at the end?

I personally (and remember what I said at the beginning of this post about us all being different) find hope and help to be what I want to read. Darkness, I already know. Hope and help in the midst of darkness is compelling. Why aren’t more Christian speculative novels exploring the light?

It seems to me we are becoming fixated with what is true to the human experience, and as a result we are not setting our “mind on things above” (Col. 3:2). Do we think we know all there is to know about God, so we don’t need to focus on Him as much as we do the depravity and corruption sin causes?

Darkness will be a part of fiction, I believe. But I also see there are two ways of looking at it. In one case, stories seem to explore the darkness, in the other they seem to explore the light that triumphs over the darkness. This latter type is the kind of story I like to read and I want to write.

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky is the sole remaining founding member of Speculative Faith. Besides contributing weekly articles here, she blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. She works as a freelance writer and editor and posts writing tips as well as information about her editing services at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.

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Johne Cook
Member

I think it’s a question of emphasis more than anything. Too much focus on the dark, and the light is ‘filtered’ (good word). Too much focus on the light and the darkness seems tame (and thus minimizes conflict).
If I want hope and light, I’ll read something like Guideposts. Otherwise, in fiction, I want strong conflict and a believable redemption story. There has to be enough darkness for the light to shatter when it impacts it, and enough light that the darkness isn’t painted as overwhelming.
That worked for the masters (whose names we all know by now). I think that same approach can work for us, as well.

Jeremy W
Guest
Jeremy W

The problem with all kinds of lovely, good things happening in a story is that they make it impossible to relate to. We all know hard times better than the easy ones. A true story about good things happening is fine and dandy, since it actually happened, but that doesn’t translate to fiction very well. (With the exception of Christian missionary novels, but that’s not a can of Worms I want a part of.)

In the end, it comes down to what you said: we have different tastes. But let’s remember that fiction is art in many more ways than a retelling of something true. The former takes metaphor, contrast, blood, tears and meticulous attention to detail. I can’t help but see nonfiction as cheating.

(With that said, nonfiction is wonderful. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. At all. Nothing. Please don’t take me out of context.)

Rachel Starr Thomson
Member

QUOTE “The problem with all kinds of lovely, good things happening in a story is that they make it impossible to relate to. We all know hard times better than the easy ones. A true story about good things happening is fine and dandy, since it actually happened, but that doesn’t translate to fiction very well.”

That’s true, but I don’t think Becky’s advocating that we write stories about lovely, good things so much as that we give Light a power and a reality in our stories that is at least as strong as the darkness. On the surface, the three books Becky referred to are not “lovely” or “good” at all–they’re absolutely awful. And yet, in real life, all three of these women found the Light to be stronger than the Darkness, and that in the very MIDST of darkness. In fact, there’s a line in The Hiding Place in which Corrie’s sister basically says that when they leave the concentration camp and tell people about God’s love, people will believe them because they have been to Hell and seen that God is there.

And I think that kind of story translates to fiction very well.

Galadriel
Guest

Good point. My stories tend to have dark moments, but also light

James Somers
Member

Usually in fiction we find our tension, our problem to be solved, our need for a hero in the darkness. Yes, we also relate to the darkness and we tend to gravitate to things we find familiar. But consider the Bible itself. How much darkness do we find in it? In all honesty, God has revealed a tremendous amount of darkness in His Word. It is the truth and the Lord doesn’t fail to show it to us. In contrast we see our Holy God. Our wickedness and that of those fallen spirits who rebelled against Him long ago and still wage war against His people today. We find the awful nature of sin and its terrifying consequences.

Be honest…the darkness is compelling isn’t it? Not that we long to run to the darkness, but to see if for what it is in comparison with who God is and what God seeks to make of mankind through the sacrifice of His son.

Good Christian Spec can do the same….give us a glimpse at real darkness so that we long for the light that much more 🙂

Bethany J.
Guest
Bethany J.

These are good thoughts to ponder.  I know my tendency to lean toward the dark and creepy side of storytelling (odd, since I dislike dark movies and never read dark books).  I sometimes have to pull back and remind myself, “…Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phillipians 4:8).

Now, that doesn’t mean my books don’t have dark, scary parts in them, because they definitely do, but I try not to make things dark for the sake of darkness itself.
 

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

Becky, I think that theme is essential, because for the Christian it is not enough simply to escape the darkness. That would be a story based only on a negative, a reaction. Without Christ and the Gospel as the positive replacement, the only sure source of joy and light, there is no such thing as “escaping the darkness” — only escapes from one kind of darkness into another.

Bethany J.
Guest
Bethany J.

I agree, Becky, that does put a different slant on it – and a good one.  In most books, though, I think the escaping-dark aspect is stronger and louder than the reaching-light aspect.  For example, in the Lord of the Rings, we find a very obvious struggle to stop darkness from swallowing all of Middle-Earth.  However, here and there, Tolkien leaves hints of light and beauty – a glimpse of the stars while Sam and Frodo travel, the Undying Lands at the end, etc.  It’s rare to find a story where the emphasis is on finding light, rather than simply defeating darkness.  I actually can’t think of one, aside from Pilgrim’s Progress!  I’m probably just not thinking hard enough, though.  Do you know of any examples?

Stephen, that’s an excellent point.  Wow.  Makes me ponder my own books and whether the light at the end is emphasized enough!  🙂

Rachel Starr Thomson
Member

I wrote on article on this ages ago (though not in a specifically SpecFic context). The world is fascinated with darkness and believes that goodness, light, is shallow, boring, unreal, sappy. As Christians, people who claim to follow the resurrected Christ as we see him in the Gospels, we have no business exalting darkness and denigrating light in the same way. We KNOW goodness; we know its power and its beauty. If we can’t show that to the world, who can?
That doesn’t mean writing stories with no darkness in them. It just means writing stories that burn with true, life-changing light.
And that kind of story does make a difference. I heard John Piper speak about a man who shook a decades-long addiction to porn after reading a description of goodness–in a novel–that so shook and inspired him that he could not help but let it purify him.
Incidentally, that old article of mine, “Paint the Light,” is here: http://www.boundless.org/2005/articles/a0001822.cfm

Rachel Starr Thomson
Member

Of course, in fiction, personal perception will come into play. I wrote my trilogy to “paint the light,” but lots of readers have described it as “dark.” (www.worldsunseen.com)

Literaturelady
Guest
Literaturelady

Hey Rachel,
When I read this post, my first thought was of your Seventh World books!  The light you paint there is vivid and real to me as a reader.  Each time the King appears, his presence is a restoration of hope and of light.  I noted in a review of Coming Day:

The story is so beautiful, such a mirror of the rise and fall of hope in real life, that it almost hurts the heart.
And that brings me to the main point of this review. A while back, Rachel Starr Thomson wrote a blog post titled “Light Isn’t Boring,” in which she says,
“Light (and the things it represents—goodness, faithfulness, glory) is not naturally boring, and we can’t afford to paint it that way in our story worlds.”
In Coming Day, she has painted light as alive, as real, as vivid. The presence and coming of the King reflects the peace and the power and the love of Christ Himself. Light isn’t boring in this novel; it is the key to the story and the salvation of the characters. Light is what drives the darkness away, what renews hope in the characters, what adds a realistic dimension to the story. And it’s not just light she’s portrayed so well; it’s also beauty. There is beauty in the landscape of the Seventh World, even during the dark times, and there is great, powerful, peaceful beauty in the work and words of the King. I don’t know how she portrays both light and beauty in such a powerful way. I guess I’ll have to read the books over and over to learn how. Yippee!

Blessings~
Literaturelady

Rachel Starr Thomson
Member

Wow, thanks! Do you have that whole review posted somewhere?

Literaturelady
Guest
Literaturelady

I’m afraid I don’t have it posted!  I wrote the review because I was on a book review kick, no other reason.  🙂  But would you like me to e-mail it to you?
Blessings~
Literaturelady

Rachel Starr Thomson
Member

Yes, please!

Morgan Busse
Member

That is the tagline for my writing: In Darkness there is Light.

In my writing, I do not need to paint the darkness, it is already there. My writing is about the struggle to come to the light and live in the light. Many times to stand in the light is to stand alone, to sacrifice, to give of yourself so that others may have light in their lives.

That is what I write about. It is also what I have experienced in real life.

Bruce Hennigan
Guest

I see your point, Rebecca. Since I started reviewing for CSFF I have been amazed at the “darkness” of many of these novels. Some are so dark, it is hard to find the light at the end of a creepy, dank tunnel. During my final edit of my upcoming book I was urged by my editor to make the story scarier and add some more “haunting” moments. I added a couple of extra scenes, but it bothered me to do so. I once proposed a book that almost made it at Multnomah and in that book I explored the moments of darkness during the last week of Jesus’ life. But, the point of each short story was that in “our darkness, we find His light”. Thus, the title “Our Darkness, His Light”. So, I keep that title framed above my monitor to remind me to focus on the light. I realize there has to be a dark moment in order to contrast with the light of Christ. I have found when we rely on human means to save us only the light of Christ’s redemptive love can truly defeat the darkness. Thanks for reminding us and drawing out attention to this danger. It is a temptation.

I was the head of our church drama ministry for 15 years and I can tell you I enjoyed acting the villain the most of any role I portrayed, particularly Satan. We are drawn to the darkness unlike a moth drawn to the light. I recall the saying “the darkest night is just before dawn” but that is not true. The darkest night is when the moon is not out and we are halfway between sunset and sunrise. The promise of light is seen as we near the sunrise and I have seen many beautiful sunrises. Thanks for reminding us to remember to always show the light in the midst of our darkness as we write.

Jonathan Lovelace
Member

I suspect that “darkness” in SF is rather like angst in some kinds of romance—and there’s some equivalent quality in every genre, I’m sure. That is, a quality that’s necessary in small quantities, and that can, when increased, make the final resolution greater (more glorious, sweeter, etc.)—but a quality that is dangerous (and not only artistically) in excess, yet in which it can be tempting for the reader to simply wallow.
There’s also the tendency for us as sinful human beings to revert to our former ways and prefer darkness to light. The world would have us believe that light, like virtue, holiness, and every other good, is shoddy and inferior compared to its poor imitations, as Lewis so memorably describes in the end of The Silver Chair. And darkness can comfortably resonate with the way things are, while the light can show the way things should be and disconcertingly expose the discrepancy between the two.

Jonathan Lovelace
Member

Here’s something I thought of after I posted my earlier comment: Darkness in fiction is not entirely determined by the subject, but is often more a matter of how we treat the subject. In The Lord of the Rings, for example, I think that Frodo’s journey into Mordor carrying the weight of the Ring has an essential “darkness” about it—but in the rest of the story, even though one might think the “facing certain defeat by an innumerable enemy” situation would be dark and despairing, for the most part Tolkien doesn’t treat it that way. Instead, he (following the sagas he was consciously imitating) shows us the shining light of courage, valor, and hope.

John Weaver
Guest
John Weaver

Dear Rebecca,
     I hardly see how Corrie solely reflected light, when she herself was fascinated with demons (she was one of the most  prominent deliverance ministers in the states after her ‘testimony’). I think darkness is a natural part of light, and as a Christian who suffers from the darkness of mental illness, I kind of get frustrated with other Christians wanting all fiction to be just light and flowers. But that’s just me.

John Weaver
Guest
John Weaver

But what do you mean by dark literature? Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed is one of the darkest books I’ve ever read, yet it’s message is fundamentally in keeping with Christian doctrine. So is The Brother’s K and Kafka’s The Trial. I agree that literature need not be dark or heavy to be great, though it takes a talented writer to do comedy skillfully (but certainly Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, for instance, is great comedy and art).  But most great art has some element of darkness and tragedy in it. John Milton’s Paradise Lost would not be great if Milton did not risk getting a little polluted by The Devil’s skillful lies.  I guess it depends what you mean by darkness. Sure, I can see how Christians can reject the whole vampiriczombieGoth genre, but fundamentally life IS DARK. Tolkien saw history as a “long defeat”, made brighter only by the promise of Christ’s ultimate final victory. If realism for you is light and joy, then show that. But there’s no reason why other Christians should feel constrained by those standards, nor is there a reason they should have to feel bad for showing the darkness or living it (by darkness here I mean sadness, not satanism). God does not give us all the same lives.
 
John
 
(Deliverance means exorcism. Corrie brought exorcism ministries to America, for which I heartily oppose her. See Michael Cueno’s book on exorcism in America for documentation).

Kaci Hill
Member

A couple questions.
 

    I hardly see how Corrie solely reflected light, when she herself was fascinated with demons (she was one of the most  prominent deliverance ministers in the states after her ‘testimony’). I think darkness is a natural part of light, and as a Christian who suffers from the darkness of mental illness, I kind of get frustrated with other Christians wanting all fiction to be just light and flowers. But that’s just me.

 
–So, if darkness is a natural part of light, then would it not stand to reason that if, as you say, she was “fascinated” with demons, she simply was fascinated with the natural part of light?
–This is more a statement, but I’m still perplexed as to where all the Christians wanting “all light and flowers” are. I can think of a few, sure, but I don’t really buy the universal statement. Okay, it’s been hardwired into me to reject universal statements the moment I find them.
–Moreover, I don’t recall Becky suggesting people only write “light.” Besides, quite frankly, you can’t see a flashlight beam when the light’s on in the room. I’m neither a fan of miserable, pointless treks into morbidity or jaunts through Candy Mountain, myself.

by darkness here I mean sadness, not satanism

 
I don’t think I’d go with “darkness” as “sadness.”  But for myself, I use it to describe stories with harsh subject matters (occult, human trafficking, prostitution, liars & cheats, war, intense depictions of evil, sadism, violence, murder, etc). A book about inner angst is…a book about inner angst.
 

(Deliverance means exorcism. Corrie brought exorcism ministries to America, for which I heartily oppose her. See Michael Cueno’s book on exorcism in America for documentation).

 
I hope you’re aware demons exist, and they can and do oppress/possess people. I’m sorry if you disagree, but you don’t even have to be a Christian to believe that. Most religions (all the ones I can think of) believe in some kind of supernatural and in some kind of evil spirit that can do some pretty nasty things to the human race.  People may abuse that, but it doesn’t negate reality. I’m honestly going to have to check on the history of exorcisms in the U. S.  It may have gained more attention, but U. S. history has a bunch of odd things that date prior to Corrie’s birth. 
 
Moreover, not all ‘deliverance’ is ‘exorcism.’ My rather limited understanding is that there’s normally a whole process before someone is considered possessed. I know I guy I could ask.   But you can be delivered from any number of things. Demons are usually the less common kind of bondage.  Humans are rather uncanny in their ability enslave themselves, lock the shackles on their own wrists, and promptly  throw away the keys.
 
 

John Weaver
Guest
John Weaver

Hi, John,
By dark literature, I mean a lot more than “sad.” YA literature right now is quite dark — delving into things like cutting and eating disorders, sexual perversions and horror.
Why is dealing with cutting and eating disorders wrong? As long as the literature does not glorify these disorders, it could provide a valuable service. That’s what children are actually dealing with. We’d probably disagree on what counts as sexual perversion, but i do agree that YA lit is too sexually explicit right now. But then again, one Shakespeare play is more sexually explicit than a thousand YA novels (have you looked at what his puns mean! And all that cross dressing.). Yet few Christians claim that Shakespearean plays, complete with codpieces, corrupt the young. We are, to say the least, inconsistent.

In another post about dystopian literature — very popular in YA — I discussed some of the truly dark stories, Lord of the Flies, 1984, Brave New World, that offered no hope.

To me, these works are if anything imbued with Christianity, far more than most modern works (I’d also add Clockwork Orange as well). All of them are extended morality plays on what happens to the world without an objective moral or political code. They are powerful indictments of subjectvist ethics. I’m sorry, I just can’t see the problem with.
As I see it, God is so opposite. He offers us a future and a hope, certainly, but He also gives us His presence here and now. No, He doesn’t change all our circumstances into happy, pleasant experiences, as some claim. But as Scripture says, When I pass through the waters, He is with me. When I go through the valley of the shadow of death, I don’t do so alone. When I hand Him the things that make me anxious, He supplies peace that goes beyond any I’ve previously understood. That’s reality.
George Müller started an orphanage though he had hardly any resources. He believed God for what they needed and continued to expand. He didn’t bemoan his poverty but turned to God in trust and ended up providing care for over 10,000 orphans. That’s reality.
Daniel’s friends refused to participate in idol worship knowing full well they would be sentenced to death. Their declaration was clear — much like Job’s “though He slay me yet will I trust Him” statement — “our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods.” That’s reality.
Are these dark stories? The circumstances are dark. Müller, devoid of resources by the world’s way of reckoning, responsible for all those children. Job, bereft of all his goods and his children, Daniel’s friends facing execution. No doubt things looked hopeless. Yet these people had hope. They did not live burdened by the darkness because they lived according to what they knew about God, not by what they knew about the world.
I want to see stories like that because that’s reality.

Kaci Hill
Member

Just so we’re clear, Becky’s first example of  “dark but uplifting” was a book about a woman who winds up in Auschwitz and her second was about missionaries brutally slaughtered. Her third is about a woman who cannot move from the neck down due to a freak accident. I’m not nearly as familiar with the third, but I am familiar with the first two (and the End of the Spear movie, where my only complaint was I still feel they held back a bit).
 
I can’t figure out what books you’re reading. Most of the Christian fiction I read is *not* scifi/fantasy (in fact, I have a kind of love/hate relationship with them, particularly scifi).  The stuff I read normally involves piling bodies, dark, intense themes, and rather gruesome violence.  I’ve read books involving a girl that cuts, messy family relationships, mindless slaughter, serial killers, sadistic villains, and guys that like to kill people rather slowly. I like books that deal with anything supernatural, spiritual warfare, and some rather insane mythology.  
 
One of my favorite plays was written by a homosexual, actually. I was actually talking about that one today.  One book I like is about one man who’s possessed by a demon (who is rather creepy and likes to show up as a little boy playing in a skull); another one turned the protagonist into a Judas type. Another book liked to deal with all the so-lovely ways Christians can turn on another; yet another was about the way female pastors are ostracized. Another book had a guy who played psychological games with the main characters until they committed suicide.  There were several where the characters are not a one Christians and throughout the series they do not “change their ways and convert.” Good people. Not Christians.  Oh, and the one series does contain a scene where a girl is almost sexually assaulted. I know a book where a demon toyed with the protagonist, then struck him down, and another book where Satan destroys the main characters and they spend the rest of their lives in a desperate attempt to put the pieces back.
With the exception of the play (that I know of), every last one of those books was by a contemporary Christian author (the playwright’s dead). 
 
The problem is not  crawling into the dark space. The problem is what you do with the darkness.
 
And there’s three kinds of readers: People who read only light-hearted books; people who read only dark and/or depressing books, and people who think life should be full of both joy and sorrow.