As I recounted last week, my first published novel, Arena was conceived partly in response to the market (alternate world stories being hot at the time) and partly as an allegory of the Christian life as it intersects the angelic conflict. Initially I thought that having the alternate world setup would make it easier to disguise the Christian aspects. But as I progressed through the book, the use of an allegorical created world into which people from our world were placed became a challenge to pull off effectively. Places where the reality came way too close to the analogy erupted right and left. I decided I would NEVER do another one. (And alas, seem to have fallen into it any way as the book I’m contracted to write after Return of the Guardian-King if based on that template. Go figure.)
Even more problematic with Arena, though, was that eventually I reached a point where I had to explain the reason for my created world’s existence and operation, and there I was: staring at the obvious again. I began to think that the only way to not be obvious was to be very vague about it all.
Lord of the Rings does not have God in it, after all. Which is, to be honest, one of the few things I don’t like about it. No one speaks of God or to Him, nor does He play any kind of active part. It is relatively easy to hide the Christian underpinnings in that way. But what if you do want God to play a part in your stories? And if you have God and you have man and you are Christian, then how can you not have Jesus Christ? And now… all your plans of being discrete begin to unravel.
I finally hit a point both spiritually and artistically where I decided I not only didn’t care if readers saw it, but that I wanted it to be seen. Yes, some readers would object. Yes, the book might not have as wide a readership because of its Christian “obviousness” but really, what was I trying to do in my writing, anyway? My intent had always been to celebrate the truths of Christianity, to celebrate God and our relationship with Him, His grace, His mercy, His wisdom. These things are an integral part of my life. We writers are supposed to write of the things we know and believe and have learned about life. The things we believe to be true. How could I write about anything else? And why would I want to write something and have no one understand what I was saying? That seems completely pointless, though I hear and read a lot of advice that seems to advocate that.
So there are three pages of backstory on the reason the Arena exists — out of about 400 — which some readers have taken extreme exception to. Ruined the book for them! If only it wasn’t there! Okay. Fine. That’s their opinion. Others expressed great relief upon reaching that section because they had been very frustrated throughout the story, wanting to know what was going on, and at that point they finally did.
I wonder if those same detractors, though, would be nearly as upset if I had couched my story in, oh, ancient Norse myth. Or Buddhism, like Sean Russell did. Or even old Egyptian stories. Those are all fine. But put in angels, the fall of Satan and Jesus Christ and now you are in trouble. One reviewer described my ineptness in introducing these Christian elements thus:
“But later on, the veneer of mystery is stripped away and the allegory becomes much less allegorical and much more like an episode of Dragnet in which the names have been changed to protect the innocent… For my part, if I want to read about a battle between heaven and hell as such, I’ll just go read Milton…” Robert Davis for Suite101.com
Another lamented, albeit vaguely, that I had fettered my work with my beliefs:
“Arena is a rather bizarre fusion of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and early SF pulp magazines…However, Hancock … is competent enough to make a somewhat simplistic conception eminently readable. Her characters are complex and well drawn, particularly Pierce… Moreover, also surprisingly for a Christian fundamentalist writer, she allows her heroine to be nearly seduced several times…
“I do hope that Karen Hancock can break through the bounds she has set around herself and write an unfettered fantasy. She has obviously got the ability to become one of the leaders in the field.” ~ Bookloons
A third, incensed to find herself reading about Christianity in a Science fiction allegory put out by a Christian publisher, complained:
“If I didn’t know the book was Christian allegory (and it makes a point to tell you, both in the blurbs on the back and in the authors acknowledgements) I might not be so… irritated about some aspects of the message the author is communicating.
“To me, there’s a big difference between religion and spirituality. Religions for the most part seem to be sets of rules about how you’re supposed to behave and worship. I believe there’s creative force in the universe, but I’m not so sure there’s only one way to pay homage to it, which is in direct opposition to the tenants of most religions. I believe good things beget good things, and kindness begets kindness. I don’t need the Bible or the Koran or any other religious text to tell me to be nice to people, to say please and thank you, to be true to myself and those I love, to not lie cheat or steal or judge others. Yet a Christian would tell me that doing all that isn’t enough. I have to accept Jesus as my savior and God as the almighty, or it’s all for naught. That’s the strongest message at the heart of Arena and I have a problem with it.”
Um. Actually, I’m quite happy that she got that “message.” Even if she didn’t like it. To her credit she gave Arena 8 out of 10 stars. You can read the full review at SFReader.com
On the other hand, look at this one from a review at Christian Book Distributers:
“Back in 2002 I read Arena, by Karen Hancock. This was about one year before I became a Christian. The book did more than hold my interest. It made me think…” Phillip Tomasso
I think that one is the best of all. And maybe ultimately it is a matter of the work of the Holy Spirit on both sides — leading the writer to put down what He intends, then preparing the reader to receive it. (Which I’ve written a little about on my own blog, Writing from the Edge, today.) All in all, it’s a dilemma I don’t think I’ve yet resolved, beyond deciding that I would write what I knew and what I would like to read, and let things fall as they might.