/ / Articles

Guest Post: This Is The Advanced Class.

Good morning! I caught up with my friend Jeremy again. He’s graciously filled in for me this morning. Jeremy McNabb is a steampunk author, youth director, and speaker. His latest e-novella, Gravesight, is available on Amazon Kindle. Hope you enjoy […]

Good morning! I caught up with my friend Jeremy again. He’s graciously filled in for me this morning.

Jeremy McNabb is a steampunk author, youth director, and speaker. His latest e-novella, Gravesight, is available on Amazon Kindle. Hope you enjoy the read!

——


This is the Advanced Class

Not long ago, I had the opportunity to sit through several informative sessions on storytelling, given by Steven James. On the conference itinerary, these classes were listed as “Advanced,” suggesting that if you hadn’t the first clue about writing, you probably ought to enjoy a different class during that slot. I’ll give you the background to set the context of the scene.

Mr. James had just finished explaining that a writer must either give the reader what they want, or else, give them something better. In other words, if you’ve spent ten-thousand words on an amazing car chase, it’s unfair to the reader for the character to wake up to find that it was all a dream. In some Christian fiction, as Mr. James points out, what the reader gets is what seems best for the character—but not necessarily what is best for the story. The climax of many Christian novels consists of the protagonist’s inevitable and predictable salvation, and not something more unpredictable, revelatory, or powerful.

“But salvation is the best thing there is!” protested one participant.

Mr. James calmly and patiently articulated that many, many Christian novels end in a salvation, and that while the angels rejoice over the saved, rescuing a completely fictional soul from a literary Hell may cheat the audience of a deeper glimpse beyond the veil.

With great indignation, the same participant rebutted, “So you’re saying is that a novel is different from a sermon?”

Everyone turned their head at that point. Someone must have missed the boldfaced word “Advanced” printed on the itinerary, just above the class description. Mr. James answered, “Absolutely. A sermon gives answers. A novel asks the questions.”

There are dozens of differences besides this singular distinction. Sermons are spoken; novels are read. Sermons are short; novels are long. Sermons are given from a pulpit; novels, page by page. Sermons are concerned with conveying truth; novels are concerned with conveying the truth as a particular character sees it.

But none of those summarize the whole difference better than Mr. James did. Interestingly enough, most classes and textbooks on preaching advise preachers to incorporate stories into their sermons, while best-selling authors unanimously agree that a novel is no place for a sermon. Here’s where I should be expected to pick on the church, especially on preachers who aspire to be novelists. Throughout Mr. James’ sessions, he made sure to highlight the common mistakes that (even best-selling) novelists make. I’ll admit, my exposure to Christian fiction doesn’t compare to my exposure to mainstream fiction. It’s my dirty little secret. Most of the books people were talking about at the Christian writers’ conference were ones I hadn’t read. When Mr. James mentioned sermonizing, or a clichéd act of God, rescuing the protagonist from death, my mind went to mainstream novels.

Now, before this becomes a sermon:

THE END.

Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of
E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

“But salvation is the best thing there is!” protested one participant.

Evangelical fail.

Though well-intended.

Stunning how even salvation can be turned into almost idol — except it’s not true salvation that’s been thus twisted. Rather it’s a Salvation Experience, and all the associated supposed trappings: an improved life, happiness, resolutions to life problems, Purpose-Driven™-ness, etc. All these are great sure. However …

Salvation is not the “best thing there is” anyway.

God Himself is the best thing there is.

The Gospel of repentance and faith in Christ, and resulting salvation, are awesome and wonderful and should not be moved beyond only because that’s how we “get” God.

Through glorifying Him, we “get more” of Him.

And great stories, even without a Salvation Allegory or storyline, help us glorify Him.

Kaci Hill
Member

Mr. James gets points for keeping a straight face and handling that with all manner of courtesy. I think most of us mortals would’ve been chuckling.  Oh, wait…
 

When Mr. James mentioned sermonizing, or a clichéd act of God, rescuing the protagonist from death, my mind went to mainstream novels.

 
So, you’re saying mainstream novels are preachy? 0=)
 

Evangelical fail.
Though well-intended.

 
Maybe, but, let’s face it, I feel like that’s how many Christian creative types look at whatever form their medium takes.  Theme, agenda, sermonized novels and novelized sermons…Why can’t we just…I dunno...tell a story?  I’ve never felt the need to make a point in a story, and I’ve never been the type to pick out a theme in a novel that wasn’t picked out for me (and then swear up and down you made it up).

God Himself is the best thing there is.

True, but I’ll also  contend that a character in a novel is never worshiping God. They’re worshiping the author’s understanding of God (and if that happens to be accurate, more power to them; I still won’t actually be seeing Lucy Penvensie in Heaven, because she doesn’t exist; and neither does Aslan).

 
Anyway.

Leann
Guest
Leann

Another unfair thing to the reader of Christian fiction is that the salvation of the main character so often rings false.  I’ve read quite a bit of Christian fiction lately (much more than I used to), and after reading conversion story after conversion story that made me roll my eyes I suddenly realized that it’s highly likely that none of these authors converted.  They were probably all raised in church and, while they have experienced salvation, they have never been converted and don’t know what it’s actually like to come to Christ from the world. 

Just a thought….

Kaci Hill
Member

I hadn’t thought of that, but you make a good observation.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

[L]et’s face it, I feel like that’s how many Christian creative types look at whatever form their medium takes.  Theme, agenda, sermonized novels and novelized sermons…Why can’t we just…I dunno...tell a story?

Here is why.

  1. Because Christians have for too long neglected the doctrine of Christian vocation, based on Paul’s encouragements not just to preach the Gospel, but to work diligently wherever you are and with whatever talents God has given you. That is ministry also.
  2. Because of bad ecclesiology — doctrine of the Church. People forget or ignore whom the Church, and local churches, is/are for: Christians.
  3. Mix number 2 and number 1, and you get people who are convinced they should have entertainment in their churches and then, conversely or in reaction, “church” in their entertainment.
  4. Similarly, Christian novelists forget their audiences. So Christian readers aren’t challenged, and non-Christian readers get “preached” at, and not even good or challenging preaching anyway.

A Christian’s excellent story will “preach” just as a Christian’s life should “preach.” But we need not feel we need to give the whole Gospel inside 60 seconds or else it’s not “preaching.” Nor should we feel that “preaching the Gospel” equals only John 3:16 salvation-message-oratory-or-story and not exploring the results of the Gospel in everyday life. The Gospel is definitely about salvation. But it doesn’t end there.

I agree that any novel “preaches” something. But again, as with a Christian’s life — as opposed to verbal, planned “preaching” proper — it should be implicit and natural.

There’s no such thing as a “neutral” novel. But there is such a thing as messing up the purpose of a novel, versus the purpose of a church, and neglecting or ignoring one’s overlapping vocations as novelist/artist and overt-Gospel-proclaimer.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Another note, worth making separate (and I’m afraid I must nitpick this one again!).

True, but I’ll also  contend that a character in a novel is never worshiping God.

Where do we get the notion that if a novel’s character isn’t actively worshiping God, “worship” isn’t a factor or result of the novel itself?

I say we not editorially; I often have this impression myself.

Yet if a wordless creation, even while fallen, can somehow be praising God, that is, giving Him glory by virtue of existing (source: the entire book of Psalms), and music without words can also praise Him, why not a Christian’s story, written with worshipful intent, in which He is never named and no character directly worships Him?

Maybe that’s not what you meant, Kaci. I just see this assumption a lot and I try to myth-bust it, just as I’d hope you’d myth-bust assumptions I seem to be holding. 😀

Kaci Hill
Member

Have you so little faith? 🙂
 
No, you’ve misunderstood completely, as the comment really only works in a situation where characters are actively worshiping a single god, be it the Three-in-One or otherwise.

For example, and if Jeremy and/or Christian see this, they can attest, I was a moderator on a forum for years, and the god of the author’s books was named Elyon.  Now, El Elyon is a rightful title God (title, not name, but that’s another conversation), so the problem wasn’t quite as pronounced, but there were many people who were so touched by this author’s depiction of Elyon (God) that they would pray using the name Elyon. As I said, that is actually one of God’s titles, God of Gods/God Most High, and he was meant to be the God of both worlds.

But what about Karen Hancock’s Arena, which uses as a name yet another title of God’s. The difference here is, she’s made a simple word a name, but the character himself is not God (just trust me, and no, this is not a slam; Elhenu was not depicted as God, but that’s my point).   However, she rightly says he is ‘the god of the Arena,’ meaning he is absolute authority, power, and sovereignty over it.  

That’s a contrast to her Legends of the Guardian-King in which Eidon is, in fact, God. Just so the distinction’s that much more stark. Or, just to push, God in her book The Enclave, which is a better comparison because it’s in our world (Arena technically is, too).

There’s Donita Paul’s books, who have Wulder; and Bryan Davis, who has Jesus.
 
You’re getting the point. All of these characters actively worship God (or, at least, a God-figure), but the question isn’t whether or not they’re actively worshiping, the question is, is the Christian God depicted actually God?

My only point was, my characters see through my lenses. Whether they love God, hate him, or are indifferent to him, they deal with God as I understand God. So, whether they worship or blaspheme, perceive God rightly or wrongly, they are bound by my perception.

If I only see God as the benevolent candy dispenser, then that’s the god of my storyworld, regardless of the name/title I’m using.  If I only see the one true God as this angry, wrathful being ready to strike on a whim, then that is the god of my storyworld.  I don’t care if I call him Jesus the Christ, if either of those is my perception, then the god of my storyworld is not God.
 
So that’s what I meant: Characters worship the god of the world in which they live, and that god is the creation of the author.  We write Jesus as we understand him, for better or worse.  That’s why most of us are scared to death to physically put him in a novel. I’d wager that’s really why you have such a beef with The Shack. (For the record, I can name two Christian authors who have done marvelous jobs at putting Jesus in a scene.)

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Thanks for that clarification, Kaci, about limiting your observation about “worship” only to stories that include either our real-world God in a fiction-world equivalent of our real world, or a fantasy-world equivalent. My apologies for my misreading!

I do believe that, similar to our real lives, we can think of our understanding of God in a novel as an asymptote — the invisible line on the X and Y graph in mathematics that many equations, including y=1/x, may approach, but never touch. In fact, I’m very sure our worldview of God will never touch that invisible line that is His perfect knowledge about Himself. If we did reach that point, we would be God.

Thus, a writer’s effort to include God in his novel, the best he understands Him — for God is love and wants to be known enough for us to respond to Him, so He gave us His Word — can approach that perfect standard of knowledge.

So we could say “this book is closer to the Bible’s portrayal of God, and this book not as much, and that one not at all.” But we can’t say “this book’s vision of God is perfect.” Only the Bible does that. And we’d agree that Christians need to stop acting as if any other book, whether nonfiction or novel, can equal the Word.

I’d wager that’s really why you have such a beef with The Shack.

Actually, I don’t mind Christ being portrayed in a novel at all, with new dialogue and everything. I dislike novels (such as the final Left Behind book) in which Jesus only rehashes what He said in the Bible. It’s fiction. Stay true to the real-life Person of Christ, but I don’t think He will be personally offended by a little “fanfiction” that involves him. If readers get confused, they should learn how to read books that are by definition fiction. Jesus Himself told at least one story that quoted God Himself (the parable of the rich man trying to build more barns).

My first personal beef with The Shack is that it’s simply poorly written and dull. I had to struggle to get into the thing, and still haven’t continued. I feel the author(s?) peering over my shoulder, with eyes wide and head nodding to convey the silent question, Are you getting it yet? Do you have Empathy yet? ‘Tis a very annoying sense. Novel preachiness is bad enough even when it’s truth.

The Shack, though, is based on reaction to bad preaching, and offers more bad preaching in its place. That’s its purpose: propaganda, and not even propaganda for the good stuff (which, again, can be annoying anyway). Being set in the “real” world, it violates real-world rules about God’s nature and how He operates, and not just in the debatable aspects of His character — in the simple stuff that true Christians have always acknowledged. That’s bad theology and storytelling, sez I — a perfect storm. (I am glad, though, that the author[s] settled their lawsuit.)

Anyway, that’s a tangent, and that’s why I put the comment up here; yet I hope it helps clarify my real reasons for disliking The Shack — not just using Jesus in a “fanfiction” way as a character. Becky has actually read the book, and I have benefited much from her multipart series about its story and doctrine attempts.

Kaci Hill
Member

I agree that any novel “preaches” something. But again, as with a Christian’s life — as opposed to verbal, planned “preaching” proper — it should be implicit and natural.

 
I’m not completely sure I agree, especially if I have to scour the pages to find the “message” or “theme.”  If I have to look that hard, I’m likely  reading into it something unintended.
 
Well, I guess I like the way Mr. James put it, and I’m offering a rather gross paraphrase: He took the Prodigal Son and asked what the theme is. We picked out at least five different themes you could legitimately pull from that parable.  His point was that by assigning it a single theme, you actually shrank the story and reduced it, missing the other beauties to be had in it.
 

Kaci Hill
Member

And for the rest I think I’m just going to cite this:
 

Mr. James had just finished explaining that a writer must either give the reader what they want, or else, give them something better… rescuing a completely fictional soul from a literary Hell may cheat the audience of a deeper glimpse beyond the veil.. “ A sermon gives answers. A novel asks the questions.” Interestingly enough, most classes and textbooks on preaching advise preachers to incorporate stories into their sermons, while best-selling authors unanimously agree that a novel is no place for a sermon.


Jonathan Lovelace
Member

I’d quibble with the characterization that sermons “give answers” while fiction “ask[s] the questions”—a good novel can indeed show the true answers to some of the important questions. But as E. Stephen Burnett points out above, “it should be implicit and natural.”
Given the way discussion so far, I’ll just add a quote that I’ve seen various ascribed to St. Francis of Assisi and several others: “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.”

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Whew, that quote can get things going for sure, Jonathan! I’ve read stuff from people who firmly debunk it, and yet their best case is that St. Francis himself never said it (apparently it’s not in his writings). I think, though, I can see where Unknown Author was coming from, though I might suggest a derivative instead:

Preach the Gospel at all times; if you’re a preacher or sharing faith with someone, use preaching; if you’re a car mechanic, “preach” the Gospel’s effects on your ethics and creation-redemptive work; if you’re a writer, “preach” in your craft and substance.

I do believe we need words to preach the Gospel. After all, the slogan itself requires words to convey it! Evidently God believed this as well. But we can also live out the Gospel, and show its effects in reality-copy and alternate-reality “simulations,” using fiction and art. The preached Gospel tells us the truth. The acted-out Gospel shows it.

Zach Bartels
Member

Great article.
 
I would say that the salvation scene-slash-salvation plot element can be done well (at least I hope so, because the uber-long novel I’ve been working on for an uberlong time contains one), but like any other element in fiction (a fight, a spell, a sex scene, the graphic death of the antagonist, a reconciliation), it MUST be a fresh and unusual spin on this now formulized plot element.  Just like you’re phoning it in if your bad guy is being held by the good guy from the top of a sky scraper, then he tries to shoot the good guy, who drops him to his death (relax–it was money when Lt. McLane did it, but not the three thousand times that it’s been done since), in the same way you’re phoning it in if the same sort of “salvation experience” (I hate that term) plays out for the same reasons and with the same effect (usually everything going from chaotic to hunky-dory in record time), you need to put down the pen and go back to the beginners’ class.

Kessie Carroll
Member
Kessie Carroll

in the same way you’re phoning it in if the same sort of “salvation experience” (I hate that term) plays out for the same reasons and with the same effect (usually everything going from chaotic to hunky-dory in record time), you need to put down the pen and go back to the beginners’ class.
 

Especially since in real life, the instant you accept Christ, usually things get WORSE because now you have a target painted on your back. Christian left the town of Destruction only to wind up in the Slough of Despond and climb that one mountain that I forget its name, having been led stray by Mr. Worldly Wise. And that was all before he knew to head for the wicket gate and go toward the light in the distance!
 
The difference being that now you have someone in your corner, covering you in grace whenever you fall in the mud. Like my sister said, being a Christian is like cheating at life, because there’s always a safety net.

Galadriel
Guest

What a discussion.
 I am, unfortunitely, brain-dead after two tests in a row. So I have nothing to say about it.

Jeremy McNabb
Guest

  …a good novel can indeed show the true answers to some of the important questions.  

In general, however, it does so by asking questions and exploring those questions to an end.  Assisi’s words, “use words if necessary” speak more to this than against it. If we live life in God’s glory, we’re not giving answers, but causing people to ask questions. How does that character, Jeremy McNabb, continue to get up every morning and go through X, Y, and Z? It would be much less effective if I got up every morning and announced the answer to that question to everyone in earshot.

  …usually things get WORSE 

Very good point. Maybe that’s where we ought to start the novel. 

So, you’re saying mainstream novels are preachy? 0=)
   

Many, yes. But you already know my thoughts on that one.

 Where do we get the notion that if a novel’s character isn’t actively worshiping God, “worship” isn’t a factor or result of the novel itself? 

Man, I rewrote once sentence like three times, trying to distinguish a fictional person’s fictional salvation and eventual fictional departure for a better fictional world called Heaven or a place of fictional punishment called Hell.    

     

       
   

  

Jeremy McNabb
Guest

Oh, and the evangelist in me says that if you love Jesus, you’ll purchase my books:
 http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=ntt_athr_dp_sr_1?_encoding=UTF8&search-alias=digital-text&field-author=Jeremy%20McNabb

Sorry Stephen, I couldn’t help myself.