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Nine Marks Of Widescreen Stories: Part 1

For a few months now I’ve been keeping up with Speculative Faith, quite overjoyed at the number of sci-fi and fantasy authors who’ve found a cyber-gathering place like this. Now it’s my privilege to start contributing headliner installments of my […]
| Oct 11, 2006 | No comments |

For a few months now I’ve been keeping up with Speculative Faith, quite overjoyed at the number of sci-fi and fantasy authors who’ve found a cyber-gathering place like this.

Now it’s my privilege to start contributing headliner installments of my own. Many of you I’ve met at ACFW 2006 in Dallas; many of you I’ve yet to meet personally or even online. But already I can discern “kindred spirits” floating about this fantastic realm. And now I can enter this world myself. …

I’ve been writing for a while about this “genre” called Widescreen Fiction, a term that first originated in my Aug. 23, 2006 column Re-editing Christian Fiction for Widescreen Viewers.

Since then, that theme has continued in a further series — I’ve been trying to explain more about the Christian market’s stigmatizing of these story forms, where the stigma came from, what some writers are doing to overcome it, and what methods may work to broaden readers’ scope of preferences beyond the limited genres currently available in Christian fiction.

Widescreen fiction: a speculative story with realistic characters, epic elements and engaging plot that includes strong, Christ-honoring themes of good versus evil and growth in faith.

That’s the central definition, but perhaps now is a great time to assemble a longer list of what Widescreen Fiction entails. With apologies to Nine Marks Ministries (which presents its Nine Marks of a Healthy Church), here begins summaries of the Nine Marks of Widescreen Stories.

1. Forming a foundational, infusing Biblical worldview

This is absolutely essential to the truly Christ-honoring work of widescreen fiction. Often some authors, in the hopes of crossover success, basic non-offensiveness, or sometimes unintentional style, have left out elements that distinguish their novels as those truly inspired by a love for Christ’s truths and a Christian worldview, and we want to avoid that.

Here things become slightly difficult to explain, for widescreen fiction (and any fiction) of course includes fictitious worlds, not only reality-based but fantastic and foreign. In these stories, one can’t always include the specific God, Christ, holy Bible, conversions to the faith and such.

Yet those concepts can either be strongly hinted toward, or told in the form of allegory or analogy.

However, the latter option seems to me overused, as many novels and stories have already mimicked the style of allegorical elements in The Chronicles of Narnia, or else included direct, sometimes shallow analogies to God and salvation.

J.R.R. Tolkien, to be sure, was among the best authors who wrote from a Christian worldview but only hinted toward it; he incidentally split the characteristics of Christ between Gandalf, Aragorn and Frodo, and generalized the struggle between good and evil in the conflict to destroy the One Ring and overt the Dark Lord’s domination. One can even find Christian worldviews evident in the stories of the superhero films Spider-Man, Batman Begins and Superman Returns.

Certainly the specific spiritual themes will vary between novels, as the author discovers them naturally while focusing on the story.

But some elements, I believe, are crucial to include in any widescreen-format, speculative story, primarily the core truths of the Gospel: Law and Grace.

Law — that is, objective moral standards — are easy to include in the story, but fortunately for all of us, the message of Christ doesn’t end with the Law (otherwise, we would all be dead).

Thus, Grace and redemption are just as essential to include, and will also likely imbed themselves in the characters and storyline while the Christ-following writer isn’t even trying to do that.

However, many Christian books I’ve read don’t go much beyond the common themes of God Loves You Even in Times of Trouble and Loneliness, or Take That Leap of Faith: themes that are often geared toward the unsaved, focusing on the main character’s Journey to Conversion.

This seems strange, not only because, as with analogies, those themes are somewhat overdone, but because most Christian readers already know about those messages anyway. Certainly we shouldn’t do away with those truths, but why not attempt going beyond them? As authors mature in their craft, so they can grow in their story complexities and imbue deeper themes. Meanwhile, their readers just might grow right along with them.

I’ll argue in part 4 that either hints, or even overt inclusions, of Biblical elements such as church attendance, evangelism and dealing with false Christians can also be included in widescreen fiction; and part 7 deals exclusively with the need for the Church’s representation in Christian stories.

Yet the next installment, part 2, concerns the opposite extreme to weakening a novel’s Christian worldview: the tactic of strengthening the Christian messages too much. Dozens of novels fall into this trap (with or without “authorship” attributed to some big-name preacher); they make it clear that their writers’ intent is to propagandize readers rather than tell them a story.

And what results are “stories,” such as they are, revolving around myopic messages and devoid of thematic layers. They will likely put off non-Christian readers; and either bore, or fail to engage fully, readers who are already Christians.

So keep your gazed fixed on this screen — and it’s all in widescreen format, of course. …

It’s great to be joining you.

E. Stephen Burnett is coauthor (with Ted Turnau and Jared Moore) of The Pop Culture Parent: Helping Kids Engage Their World for Christ, which will release in spring 2020 from New Growth Press. He also explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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