Something Else To Learn From The Secular, Part 2

Check out this post by J. Mark Bertrand, whose work I discovered not long ago (and have greatly enjoyed): Aratus is one of the poets quoted by the Apostle Paul at Mars Hill. His Phaenomena begins in the following way: […]
| Sep 21, 2006 | No comments |

Check out this post by J. Mark Bertrand, whose work I discovered not long ago (and have greatly enjoyed):

Aratus is one of the poets quoted by the Apostle Paul at Mars Hill. His Phaenomena begins in the following way:

Let us begin with Zeus, whom we mortals never leave unspoken.
For every street, every market-place is full of Zeus.
Even the sea and the harbour are full of this deity.
Everywhere everyone is indebted to Zeus.
For we are indeed his offspring…

That last line should be familiar to readers of Acts 17. Paul, in announcing the identity of “the unknown god” to his Athenian audience, assures them that God “is actually not far from each one of us” (v. 27). He backs up this claim not with an Old Testament quote but with a line attributed to Epimenedes of Crete — “In him we live and move and have our being” — and the aforementioned line from Aratus: “For we are indeed his offspring.” The fact that Paul was familiar enough with classical pagan authors to quote lines from their poetry in support of his argument is often cited by teachers today as a mandate for cultural engagement. To speak to our culture, we have to know our culture.

But it seems to me that Paul’s behavior is even more striking than this. He doesn’t just quote a line from Aratus, he quotes Aratus on the omnipresence of Zeus. Think about that for a moment …

What Paul’s action suggests to me is simple enough. A Christian thinker should have no problem reading the work of non-Christian authors, finding the truth there, and putting it in the context of a larger truth.

After getting over my initial shock upon reading this, my first thought was that it serves as complete confirmation that believers in Christ can—and should—use media that has been associated with the world—with pagan worship, even. This argument that Christians shouldn’t do this or have any part in that because of its previous association holds even less water for me now. Science fiction is often considered the bastion of atheism, while fantasy is condemned as occultic or New Age. And yet—not only should we appropriate the genre as a way to reveal truth (“knowing the terror of the Lord, we persuade men” and “I become all things to all people”), but there’s nothing ungodly about some of us being conversant enough in the thoroughly secular end of things to dialogue intelligently with fans who might not listen to “ordinary” Christians. (And nobody could accuse the apostle Paul of being ordinary … the man was astounding!)

Christian SF/F fans are often regarded as uber geeks. A few times recently I’ve laughingly referred to myself as a freak among freaks … y’know, Paul says we are a peculiar people, but some of us are more peculiar than others. But I’ve had a growing conviction that God made us thus for a purpose—HIS purpose—because we are uniquely suited to represent Him to a portion of society who might otherwise never think twice about what Christianity really is.

What they don’t realize is that all the wonder they long for—all the honor, and goodness, and truth, and the unanswered questions—it all lies with Him. The longings that are spoken of in their writings, are met in Him. Let us, then, hold the standard of His name up high—and not be afraid to walk among those who seem to be hostile to us, or Him.

If God is with us, who can be against us?

My Fantasy Roots

Day three of the Edenstar Blog Tour… Looking through all the books listed on that site has recalled to me my own speculative fiction roots and I thought I’d start my stint of posts here on Speculative Faith with a trip […]
| Sep 20, 2006 | No comments |

Day three of the Edenstar Blog Tour… Looking through all the books listed on that site has recalled to me my own speculative fiction roots and I thought I’d start my stint of posts here on Speculative Faith with a trip down memory lane.

My first memory is of a book of fairytales I received as a little girl. There were jewels hanging in the trees of the forest and a white stag. And there was a giant who kidnapped a maiden and kept her in his cave where he cut off her feet and locked them in a cupboard so she wouldn’t be able to escape. Of course the prince found her and they got her feet out of the cupboard, put them back on and she was delivered…

A bizarre story to remember, yes, but it has stayed with me as surely as the jewels and the white stag. I didn’t even blink at the notion of feet cut off and kept in a cupboard, then popped back on like a pair of shoes when it was time to go!  Maybe that willingness to suspend disbelief is one reason I have always loved the literature of the fantastic.  Well, I’ve loved literature of history and adventure and spying and westerns and mysteries… best not get into that. Science fiction and especially fantasy, though, have always held a special place in my heart.

As a child I don’t recall there being much to choose from.  The fairy tale book, Miss Pickerel Goes to Mars (Ellen MacGregor), A Wrinkle in Time, The Phantom Tollbooth. Does Pooh count? I’ve always loved Winnie the Pooh… I used to watch the creature feature in black and white on our old TV every Saturday afternoon. More crazy stuff to fill the well.

Then in the seventh grade, I found Andre Norton’s Judgment on Janis and I was hooked on SF for good. I read everything of hers I could find, then I read everything of Robert Heinlein’s I could find. And then I just started reading everything in the SF/F section of the library — I loved Dune (and had absolutely no idea they were doing drugs and having orgies until the third time I read it). At the same time, Star Trek came on the scene. After that ended its run, I spent some time with Westerns — Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, and other historicals. I read The Hobbit in High School, followed by Lord of the Rings, but they didn’t really capture me. C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy was interesting but Perelandra was soooo boring! (Until I read it again, about ten years later as a Christian; then it was my favorite of the three).

I was married and one year out of college when I was complaining to my husband about a John Jakes book wherein the protagonists were rolling amorously about in the hay by the third page, and my husband suggested I write my own novels. I decided to take his advice.

I’d already written a western and a Star Trek ripoff novel in high school. Now, having recently become a Christian, I was gungho for Christ and decided I would write a Christian western (I was blissfully, profoundly ignorant of all things relating to publication at the time). Six months later Star Wars came out and it blew me away. The analogies that movie sparked wouldn’t let me go. I threw the western aside and began to write a science fiction adventure allegory.

But not an obvious allegory. I wanted to show just how cool the Christian life was, without all the baggage that I, having been an unbeliever for 21 years of my life, knew existed out there. I had carried so many misconceptions about it all myself, that I was eager to present something that would clear them all up. I also wanted to tell a real story, with deep and believable characters, not the cardboard figures I’d noted in other allegoriacl stories.

I think at the time the Christian market for fiction was virtually nonexistent — prairie romances, biblical historical fiction and Grace Livingston Hill were about it. I had no interest in any of that, and never even gave thought to going in that direction. The focus was always on ABA. That’s what I wanted to write for, that’s where I saw my books as being published.

Sometime not long after that, someone told me SF was evil, so I switched to fantasy (I have since changed my mind about that…). Abramm Kalladorne took shape on a long, hot dayhike in the Blue Wilderness of central Arizona and shortly thereafter I began the book that would one day become The Light of Eidon, Book One in THE LEGENDS OF THE GUARDIAN-KING.

To be continued…

Grace,
Karen Hancock

The Shrinking Void

It wasn’t much more than a few months ago when I was feeling pretty down about the future prospects of Christian speculative fiction. I felt like we were looking at a giant gnome-built wall that had set itself up in […]
| Sep 19, 2006 | No comments |

It wasn’t much more than a few months ago when I was feeling pretty down about the future prospects of Christian speculative fiction. I felt like we were looking at a giant gnome-built wall that had set itself up in the path of this genre and denied any further steps forward.

But over these last few months, with the help of the fellow writers here, the discovery of places like Edenstarbooks.com and WheretheMapEnds.com The wall seems to be on the verge of doing what gnome-built things often tend to do….self-destruct.

I’ve found my definition of speculative fiction to be broadening and discovering so many new books. And as is shown over at Claw of the Conciliator and by our own Mirtirka, that we can find Christian themed stories that have been out for years in the ABA.

So I have found encouragement that what once seemed like a great void in the world of speculative fiction is shrinking. There are still pockets where I wish more ground could be taken (space opera, adventure fantasy), but I no longer despair for seeing the day.

This weekend (Sept. 21-24) I, along with a few of our other contributors will be heading off to the American Christian Fiction Writers conference, the premier conference for fiction writers in the Christian market. In the past the sense that I have gotten from this conference is a sobering one. However times may be changing. Speculative fiction has been showing up more and more in the CBA. And this year there will even be a workshop on writing science fiction and fantasy taught by John Olson.

So perhaps this year the vibe will be a bit more encouraging and we’ll see the void shrink again. At any rate, whether you’re a reader or a writer of Speculative Fiction from a Christian worldview. Don’t despair. The future continues to look brighter.

CSFF Blog Tour—Edenstar Books and Games

To kick off September’s CSFF Blog Tour, I had the privilege of interviewing Bill Bader, who, along with his wife Cheryl, founded our featured web site, Edenstar Books and Games. RLM: Since you and Cheryl created and maintain a web […]
| Sep 18, 2006 | No comments |

To kick off September’s CSFF Blog Tour, I had the privilege of interviewing Bill Bader, who, along with his wife Cheryl, founded our featured web site, Edenstar Books and Games.

RLM: Since you and Cheryl created and maintain a web site dedicated to Christian science fiction and fantasy, I can only assume the genre holds some allure for you. What first got you interested in speculative fiction?

BB: Tough question! Probably it was my passionate interest in astronomy. Science fiction took me places that regular stories couldn’t. I liked its outlandish, weird, unconventional nature whether serious or humorous. Socially I felt like an outsider, so I may have identified with the genre because it often dealt with misfits, aliens, and other oddballs. Part of the pleasure, too, is that much of it attempts to predict scientific, social, political, and other developments. Finally, a lot of it is just plain ol’ escapist fun!

I lost interest because I saw a lot of us-and-them mentality in the local sci fi fan group (many call non-fans “mundanes,” or boring people. It’s not universal, though). I also saw antagonism towards Christians and Christianity. Again, not a lot, but enough to be exasperating. Shock for the sake of shock crept in, and that quickly wore thin.

CSFF has all the elements that drew me to sci fi originally, but doesn’t have the negatives that alienated (sorry — couldn’t resist!) me. There’s an amazing amount of well-written CSFF that keeps me busy. I feel as if I’ve rejoined a party that’s better than I’d ever hoped.

RLM: What prompted you and Cheryl to do something so time-consuming as establishing and maintaining Edenstar?

BB: We like CSFF and know that others do. Since it’s so hard to find, we consolidated the available information so we could have a kind of check list that could also generate a bit of income! But if we’d known how demanding it is, we might have thought twice. Too late now.

RLM: What do you hope or believe is possible for Christian SFF and where do you see the genre now?

BB: I hope it can continue to grow as more Christian publishers take the risks of producing something that believers might find controversial. Sci fi has always been relegated to a small niche, and CSFF is a niche within a niche. But it can express truth in ways that mainstream Christian fiction can’t. That’s one of its greatest strengths, IMHO.

Much CSFF is published by smaller houses and never reaches bookstores. Fortunately, the Internet (which sci fi never predicted) has allowed us to learn of, list, and read some amazingly good books we never would have heard of otherwise. The numbers of reviews displayed for these books show that others are finding them as well. So there’s hope for growth and influence.

RLM: I know your wife Cheryl writes fantasy. What can you tell me about her book The Maker’s Pool?

BB: The Maker’s Pool is the story of three kids who pass through a mysterious green door into the land of Mojuku, one that’s as technologically advanced as ours. However, in Mojuku’s world, Tellamond, the Fall never happened. It’s a world without sin. In fact, the people don’t even grasp the concept. The people there have a close relationship with the Maker, living hundreds of years before going to their permanent home with the Maker’s Father. However, three invaders are poised to bring corruption into Tellamond by trying to tempt the natives into violating the one Law: do not swim in the Maker’s Pool.

Mitch, his sister Tanya, and his best friend Kevin are there to alert the Mojukans of the danger heading toward them. But the three have some learning to do themselves. Obedience, humility, and faith aren’t their strengths. But unless they grow and learn, their mission will not succeed.

Subjectively, I think it’s a wonderful book that more than holds its own. I’m frustrated because I think it’s a lot better than other juvenile fiction I’ve read, and I’d love to see The Maker’s Pool get the publication and recognition I think it deserves.

Objectively, it’s well plotted and paced. The characters are plausible, especially the Maker. A Christ figure is tricky to depict, and I think Cheryl did so really well. The humor works, the cliffhangers work, and the story is thought provoking without being preachy. I look forward to more about Kevin, Mitch, Tanya, Mr. Peabody, and the Maker himself.

RLM: How do you answer the critics of fantasy who believe Christians should not involve themselves in stories with talking animals or magic or strange powers?

BB: I’d start by asking why they object. Assuming the stories don’t get into biblically forbidden areas, I don’t see a problem. Talking animals, strange powers, and other fantasy elements can attract an audience to Christian teaching in a way that’s more palatable to them. For example, Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings from a Christian point of view but never mentioned Christ. However he includes such Christian concepts as friendship, generosity, hospitality, faith, sacrifice, temptation, atonement, suffering, resurrection—and more. Again, the books teach without preaching, as if they’re a very extended series of parables. Likewise, C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia included many “suspect” elements, but they do what Lewis intended, which was to plant spiritual seeds in his readers’ minds.

RLM: Thanks so much, Bill. All that’s left now is for readers to see what the other CSFF blog participants (see list below) have to say and to check out Edenstar for themselves.

Jim Black

Jackie Castle

Valerie Comer

Bryan Davis

Beth Goddard

Leathel Grody

Karen Hancock

Elliot Hanowski

Katie Hart

Sherrie Hibbs

Sharon Hinck

Jason Joyner

Tina Kulesa

Kevin Lucia

Rachel Marks

Shannon McNear

Rebecca LuElla Miller

Cheryl Russel

Mirtika Schultz

Stuart Stockton

Steve Trower

Analysis Of ‘Hell Is The Absence Of God’ By Ted Chiang, Part 1

“Hell is the Absence of God” offers an exhilaratingly plotted story with a horrifying, perplexing, brilliant, and vexing conclusion.
| Sep 15, 2006 | 1 comment |

This novelette won the Hugo and the Nebula awards. And what an exhilaratingly plotted story with a horrifying and perplexing and brilliant and vexing conclusion. It’s a complicated story told in a clean, simple prose. I’ll need at least two, maybe more sessions to go through it.

But first, the beginning:

“This is the story of a man named Neil Fisk, and how he came to love God.”

The first line is true. This is precisely that story in a nutshell. But the simplicity and traditional opening—think of how many stories you read, perhaps mythologies, perhaps children’s tales that opened in like manner, “This is the story of…”—belie the complexity within.

Yes, it is Neil’s story, but it is also to a lesser extent Janice Reilly’s story, and to the least extent of the three characters who play their part in the tale, Ethan Mead’s. The lives of all three intersect. And all three end up at the same place and doing the same thing for different reasons by the end of the story, all with different results.
I did say an exhilarating plot, no?

“Hell is the Absence of God”—henceforth HitAoG—is a fantasy. The “what if” behind it is simple: What if Hell, Heaven, Angels, and God were a reality, something factual, something you saw and experienced and that got reported on the news? What if faith was removed from the equation, because there was no longer room for doubt? What would the world be like? What would individual human reaction to the world be like?

Chiang’s answer to those interrelated “what ifs” present us with an environment where angels appear with alarming frequency, the way thunderstorms or lightning or earthquakes or tornadoes do. And when they appear, terrible and wonderful things happen. Fetuses can be deformed; the blind can see or the seeing blinded; the lame can walk or the sound made lame. Deaths or healing can result. Buildings collapse and landscapes twist. All apparitions become a mixed bag, blessings and curses.

From time to time, the ground beneath you goes transparent and you see straight down into Hell, see perhaps people you’ve known or loved or hated. Sometimes, the saved appear to the living, and they are aglow with unbounded love of God, beatific. Devotion of the salvific sort is now measured not by one’s faith, but by one’s love of God.

Now, place into this situation a man who is not devout (Neil), a woman who is very devout (Janice), and man who is neither extreme (Ethan), and add these complications:

  1. Neil’s beloved wife has been killed (horrifically lacerated by shattered glass) during an angelic visitation. This makes him really not want to love God, this God who took from Neil what he loved most. But if he wants to be reunited with his beloved, he must love God. Why? Because his wife’s soul ascended to heaven at death. Loving God is the ticket to reunion. Conundrum! He begins attending a meeting with others who were at the angelic visitation that took his wife. He conscientiously works through all the ways he might reach Heaven.
  2. Janice’s legs were taken from her in her mother’s womb and replaced by flippers during an angelic visitation. Later on, four deceased saved relatives appear to her family, and this visit convinces all that Janice’s deformity is a blessing and not a punishment. She becomes a sort of Joni Erickson Tada—a minister and encourager to those who have handicaps from birth or from visitations. During a second event, her legs are restored, fully functional. She now loses the power granted by her previous situation, but tries to keep encouraging people all the same, seeing her ministry altered, but not eliminated. However, the unhealed tend to resent the healed. She is confronted by Neil, who has a leg deformity and who thinks she is ungrateful for miracle. Neil is not the only one criticizing her. Janice has lost her sense of identity and assured purpose. She wants to give back her healing.
  3. Ethan has witnessed an apparition, but he did not receive either healing or damage. Everyone else present—save one— has understood a clear purpose in their lives for the visitation. He doesn’t. He goes in a persistent search to find out why he was where he was when he was, and this leads him to Janice, the only other person at his particular visitation who has not learned why she received the visit and its healing. He finds his purpose in helping her achieve her ultimate goal.

They all are driven by a need to fix some terrible pain or answer a question or receive illumination—and their problems all stem from the way the Heavenly intrudes on the Mundane in this fantasy story.

But who is telling this story?

The simplicity, the straightforwardness of the opening paragraph could easily fits some journalistic enterprise, such as a story for a magazine. Or perhaps it might seem like some thesis paper: Here you have the initial paragraph stating concisely the who and what, the elements to be expanded upon later. You could be reading some biographical profile in a Christian periodical, perhaps even Vanity Fair, maybe even Rolling Stones.

That is, until you get deep into the second paragraph, and read this about Neil and his leg deformity: “Most people assumed God was responsible for this.” Okay, that’s a bit odd. But this is not too far off from how some folks perceive handicaps. (But most?) We feel a bit of the slippage of perception, here, but we can’t relax ,because the next phrase puts us totally in fantasy territory: “but Neil’s mother hadn’t witnessed any visitation while carrying him…”

Okay. We’ve slipped the surly bonds of reality and off we go into the wild blue. And wild it is.

But who is telling this story?

Danged if I know.

It’s an omniscient narrator, certainly. He,1 the narrator, knows things that people don’t say. Offers motivations and thoughts. Yes, omniscient. Is it meant to be God?

Like I said, danged if I know.

But considering that this is a story where God (who never actually steps on stage, as it were) plays a huge role, it is interesting to consider. More on that later, when we head into the discussion of the shattering conclusion.

The depth of the story comes from the involved problem-solving behavior (and problem assessing prose, I might add) of all three characters, but most clearly Neil and Janice. Chiang takes what Christians believe (there is a Heaven, there is a Hell, there are angels, there are damned, there are saved, God intervenes, God blesses, God judges, the first commandment and foremost is “love God with all your heart…”) and makes it as literal as possible. Then, he puts eternally heartbreaking and brain-aching theological puzzlers into play, most obviously the problem of human suffering in light of the Judeo-Christian propositions that God is just and good.

This is a very deep tale.

But the people are also very human and needy, and so we sympathize. All of us who have loved deeply can understand Neil’s problem—he wants to be with his wife, be it on Earth, in Heaven or in Hell. His misfortune is to be the man who is incapable of loving God (by disposition, nature, circumstance), yet who must nevertheless gain Heaven.

That’s one heckuva conflict set-up, eh? Neil is a God-hating person sympathetically portrayed.

As far as Janice’s character, anyone of faith who has undergone suffering and heard the sermons on the topic or read the books on it and then seen how persons such as Joni Erickson Tada overcome in the midst o f suffering can understand what Janice is going through; if not by experience, than by the sheer logical pathwork that Chiang brilliantly sets up for Janice to do what she does.

Yes, we can find strength in our diseases and deformities and calamities, and grace, but what happens when our identity is shaken? What happens when we think we are X, and God now makes us Y? When once we could encourage people, but now we become someone who can no longer do so as before? How do we find purpose again and seek God’s will? Janice is a God-loving person sympathetically portrayed.

Ethan, though less well-drawn than Janice or Neil, is someone we can understand as well. Everyone else who experienced the visitation he witnessed found a purpose for it in their lives,except him. Therefore, he must seek it. He must know the why. Anyone who feels “left behind” or as if their life has no real meaning can relate. Ethan is an ordinary guy seeking the extraordinary and sympathetically portrayed.

And the paths of all three cross, and recross, and I as a reader can’t help but wonder if Chiang intended to imply that God is at work even at that level. I doubt it, but I’m not sure.

So, I leave you with these three people, each of them seeking something pertaining to God in a world where God is undeniable and where Hell is that place where God is not.

What will happen?

If you haven’t read the story, where do you think an atheist author is going to take Neil, Janice, and Ethan. How could it play out as a “Christian” story? Does it sound like Christian speculative fiction to you?

If you’ve read the story, how do you view the narrator? Do you sympathize with all the characters? Do you find the tone offensive (other than the ending)? Have you asked yourself the same questions about God and suffering as the characters do? And is this story Christian speculative fiction in your opinion?

I think not, despite its having some of the same elements as “Bed & Breakfast.” Tell me what you think.

Next week: Onto the Middle, fearlessly, aka Part Two.

  1. I’m using the default gender pronoun and feminist P.C.-ness be hanged

Fantasy Writing With A Christian Worldview or Beating A Dead Horse Part I

Much of what we’ve discussed at Spec Faith is whether {enter Shakespearen-themed music here} to write or not to write to the secular market, or if you prefer to the lost. And how do we do that when writing science […]
| Sep 14, 2006 | No comments |

Much of what we’ve discussed at Spec Faith is whether {enter Shakespearen-themed music here} to write or not to write to the secular market, or if you prefer to the lost. And how do we do that when writing science fiction or fantasy? If we are writing to the secular, should we portray overt Christianity, be subtle, or just write a darn good story and not quench our Christian worldview?  I hope you’re not tired of this subject because it is a conundrum for many Christian science fiction and fantasy writers and not easily forgotten or answered.

Our ultimate goal should be to write such a truly compelling story with magnificent prose that readers want to keep reading even if they cringe at anything that hints at Christianity. (Though I find it quite interesting many readers don’t even recognize the Christian elements even when it’s blatant)

Wouldn’t that be a dream come true?

There must be authors that have already reached this standard. I’m interested to hear your favorites because my TBR pile keeps growing. I’ll never catch up.

One such author that, in my opinion, has accomplished this is Stephen R. Lawhead. I found some interesting review comments regarding Christianity in his book Taliesen of the Pendragon Cycle series. This is part of only one such review.

“. . . While it seems eminently reasonable to portray Arthur’s forebears as wrestling with their conversion from Celtic pagan beliefs to Christianity (why else would they have ultimately been so obsessed with the recovery of the Holy Grail?), I believe that Lawhead fell into the trap of presenting Christianity as not only Taliesin’s choice but also his choice, the right choice and the only choice. My opinion only, of course, but I believe the novel would have been much more effective stopping at the simple portrayal of Christianity as the historical choice that Taliesin made for himself and his family! Somewhere in the final third of the novel, zealotry slipped over the top and I began to feel like Lawhead was trying to preach to me through Taliesen and, frankly, I just didn’t care for it!

The writing was so darn good, I can’t bring myself to give the novel a failing grade outright but I’m left with a disturbing feeling of ambivalence as to whether I’ll read “Merlin”, the next novel in the entire five novel series “The Pendragon Cycle”. We’ll see …

You can read Paul Weiss’s full review here .

The writing was so darn good. . .”

And that is our goal.

I did not include the first part of his review, but Mr. Weiss began raving about Taliesen despite his apparent dissatisfaction with an overt Christian message. My point is that should we write to this standard, we can write what we want—Christian themes or parallels or allegories included. If excellent writing and storytelling is always the “bottom line” in any genre and any story, then it is no less true for a Christian-themed story written to a non-Christian market. Lawhead’s books are proof of this. Any other books/authors you feel meet this standard?

On September 28th and 29th, I’ll be posting an interview with Stephen Lawhead on Favorite Pastimes historical blog. I hope you join me for that.

Oh, and I’m not sure there is actually a Part 2, but that seems to be the going trend so I’ll do my part.

Blessings!
Beth.

Why Fantasy? – Part 4

A fantasy-style story with Christian themes or world view seems more readily accepted in mainstream circles than Christian-themed stories in other genres. This is one of the main reasons I decided to write fantasy – I wanted to take my […]
| Sep 13, 2006 | No comments |

A fantasy-style story with Christian themes or world view seems more readily accepted in mainstream circles than Christian-themed stories in other genres. This is one of the main reasons I decided to write fantasy – I wanted to take my books into the public schools, to young people who might never hear the gospel or be exposed to any kind of Christian message.

As most of you know, Narnia and LOTR are standard reading material in public schools all across the United States, probably because the faith themes aren’t overt. I have heard from students who say their teachers had no clue that Aslan is a Christ-type figure, so, even the most obvious parallel in Lewis’s stories escapes the grasp of some in the public square.

In my own writing, I wanted cling to a fantasy premise that might open doors in the schools, while daring to be more overt. I thought a contemporary setting might be more relevant to young people and deliver a more powerful faith message, but this required me to have a real God and a real Christ. The challenge was to push the faith message as far as I could without crossing a line that the public schools had drawn. The problem is that the line is difficult to know and varies from school district to school district, so I just had to guess what would work best.

So far, it seems that there are very few closed doors in the public schools for my series. They were accepted to the national Accelerated Reader list, and I have been welcomed in these schools all across the country. So far for my fall tour, I have scheduled 17 public schools and 12 Christian schools, so there’s a wonderful balance between the two.

Here in Florida, I have yet to be turned down as a visiting author simply because of the faith content of my books. I have been told by more than one teacher that the fantasy premise makes the powers-that-be more comfortable with the Christian elements.

What kind of content would cross that acceptability line in public schools, even in a fantasy story? My guess is that the number one no-no would be an overt come-to-Jesus altar call conversion. Probably frequent Bible quotes would make some administrators sweat. But these are likely issues only in a contemporary setting. Since much fantasy takes place in other worlds, we usually don’t have that problem.

How about some feedback? What else would keep a fantasy story out of public schools, whether contemporary or “other-world”? How concerned should we be about this? Have you heard stories about authors or books not being accepted in a school system because of faith?

This is my last Wednesday entry for a while. I’m going on an insanely busy book tour soon. I would appreciate it if you would consider praying for me.

Bryan Davis
http://www.dragonsinourmidst.com

The Joy Of Creation

One of the things I enjoy most about reading and writing Science Fiction and Fantasy is the sheer joy of creating. Creating the mental images and histories when reading others works, and creating the worlds and characters themselves when writing […]
| Sep 12, 2006 | No comments |

One of the things I enjoy most about reading and writing Science Fiction and Fantasy is the sheer joy of creating. Creating the mental images and histories when reading others works, and creating the worlds and characters themselves when writing my own. Especially early on, when I let myself go and just see what comes.  Usually something that starts with a single image, idea or what if?

Like one story I’m currently working on. It started with the image of a battle weary warrior, a dragon slayer. Slowly over time the character behind that image emerged, his past hard and violent. Eventually my vision widened and I began to see the world around him, bit by bit.  Flashes of more images, some from the past, some from the future in relation to the original character image.

This particular story has been percolating in the background of my mind since high school, put on the back burner while I focused more on my Science Fiction world and the stories in it. But when I completed the manuscript for Starfire, I began filtering through my story ideas for something different that might be more marketable.

This story popped to the surface quickly and suddenly the world was ready to be fleshed out even more. A fantasy but set in a not-quite industrial revolution time period, along the lines of Steampunk, but not quite. And one not set in a European type setting, but more of a North American setting. Foregoing dwarves and elves for new races.

As of yet there was still only the rudimentary idea for a story, one involving a dragon slayer. Yet as the world continued to grow and expand, with the inhabitants and technology in my mind, the story grew with it. Until at last the basic premise blossomed into the full fledged plot.

A dragon slayer, cursed with the memories of a dragon, must seek out a lost chamber where he hopes to find the means to lift the curse. Along the way he gains a troupe of mismatched adventurers, each with an agenda of their own. Together they must face a sinister evil and its nightmare minions, while constantly being hounded by bounty hunters. But the slayer is determined that nothing will stop him from lifting his curse, not even the end of the world.

And once the plot fell into place, that is when the creation really takes off, as with each new scene some new tidbit of information, geography, technology, character, plant, animal or society arises. And each tidbit triggers many more sparks of insight that deepen the world and the people that inhabit it.

That’s what I love about this genre. The freedom to go where the whim takes you. The ability to shape worlds.

Thoughts About Fantasy on 9/11

Part of the Fantasy motif is the struggle between good and evil (for a more detailed discussion, see the good-and-evil portion of A Christian Worldview of Fantasy at A Christian Worldview of Fiction). That evil exists became stamped upon the […]
| Sep 11, 2006 | No comments |

Part of the Fantasy motif is the struggle between good and evil (for a more detailed discussion, see the good-and-evil portion of A Christian Worldview of Fantasy at A Christian Worldview of Fiction). That evil exists became stamped upon the minds of Americans with the images of airplanes smashing into high-rises.

But what was the evil? Osama bin Laden and the Taliban? Muslims of all stripes? American greed and decadence that called down the wrath of Allah? or of God?

I think one of the best definitions I’ve heard for evil came from Beth Goddard:

Evil is the result of what happens when man does not have God’s love present in his heart.

I think Scripture bears out this definition: “For You are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness; No evil dwells with You” (Psalm 5:4).

And yet, the Bible more often discusses the effects of evil—evil thoughts, actions, lives. Proverbs is particularly clear. The righteous should not hang out with evil men. Or evil women. The wicked will be captured by their own sin. Evil things come out of the mouths of evil people.

What does this have to do with fantasy? Above all other genres, fantasy is designed to define evil the way God does, to show it as He sees it.

I found nowhere in Scripture that God explained evil men or women by delving into their childhood. Instead He talks about the perversity of evil people, their need to perpetuate evil, their evil plans, and words. He also talks about the consequences of their evil, how it trips them up, snares them, entangles them.

Far be it from me as a writer, then, to soften evil for the sake of creating a more “believable” character. Yes, evil characters need proper motivation, but that should be within the realm of their evil intentions.

Their motives should be centered on their desire to promote themselves, satisfy their lusts, reap revenge. These are believable because they are in the heart of Man.

We sinners know what that feels like because we have felt the desire to be first or to be the one in charge. We’ve felt the pull of the flesh, to live for the pleasure of the moment. We have known hatred and the desire to strike back against those who hurt us.

That the evil characters give in to those desires—or perhaps, more accurately, dedicate themselves to those desires—is what sets them apart. They are content to be the rulers of their own lives, in continued rebellion to the One who wants to set us free from the tyranny and ravages of sin.

This is the evil Christian fantasy can show. Is it the evil Christian fantasy MUST show?

Part 2: An Analysis Of Gene Wolfe’s “Bed and Breakfast”: Is It CSF? What Can We Learn?

~This will be longish. I decided not to stretch it to three parts, hence the length. Remember: I’ll be choosing a winner for a free book (Strange Travelers, Gene Wolfe) from the comments relating to last Friday’s or today’s post. […]
| Sep 8, 2006 | No comments |

~This will be longish. I decided not to stretch it to three parts, hence the length. Remember: I’ll be choosing a winner for a free book (Strange Travelers, Gene Wolfe) from the comments relating to last Friday’s or today’s post. My fave wins.

I asked some questions last Friday, and here’s my answer to the first, “How would this story play out if it were written for a CBA book?”

Because there is a fictional tradition within Christendom that includes Dante’s INFERNO and Lewis’ THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS, and Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, we could keep the set-up exactly as is without being mavericks: a bureaucratic hell with levels of hellishness, a runaway woman of what we’d categorize of minor evilness, a demon who comes across as a businessman with malicious intent, a narrator caught in a moral bind. Probably the conversations would establish more clearly that the woman never accepted Christ as Savior-Lord and that’s why she’s damned. The man’s spiritual struggle would be played up, and he certainly would not indulge in a sexual barter. No sexualized scene would be thinkable. If one wanted a CBA happy ending, there might be a divine intervention that gave the damned woman a second chance (ie, time reversal?), and the narrator would make a profession of faith, too. The demons would have lost, and God would have won, and the narrator and runaway might be get married. A less happy ending might focus on the salvation of the narrator, yet sadly, the woman’s plight would be hopeless. Her talewould be merely cautionary. But demons would have still lost the narrator, God would have the glory, and the B&B would not be visited again by the narrator (who may or may not go on to enter an anti-Hell ministry).

Answering the next question: A less theistically inclined writer in the ABA might make hell seem a heckuva lot more fun and God a lot less just.

But this is how it actually plays out in this ABA published story:

~~Man and runaway hellizen meet in the B&B’s kitchen, eat, talk, and once the demon presence intrudes, the conversation becomes a three-way one. Information about hell is given, but there is much that is only revealed aslant (part of the brilliance of the use of dialogue). Eventually, before everyone retires, the woman makes a sexual bargain with the narrator. Her in his bed for a night’s protection.

The man has some sort of occultic protective knowledge, so the room is fortified against demonic intrusion. During the sexual encounter (not indulgently described such as in erotica, but discreetly alluded to, mostly in directions or suggestions in dialogue), the man gains some direct and indirect information from the woman about her miserable marriage, her infidelities, and the one man she remembers fondly with whom she had no sex, but almost turned to for rescue. It becomes evident she’s using the narrator, as she’s used men in the past, and the narrator is quite happy to be used, enthralled as he is by this beautiful runaway.

In the morning, he asks the demon—in case this demon is the one who’s been sent to retrieve her—to grant him more time with her, a couple weeks. The demon, Foulweather by name, says he’s not after her. If he were assigned to her, he says, he’d have been with her all along (a sort of hellish guardian angel). In fact, he reveals, the “boys downstairs” would be displeased if he interfered with what is transpiring. He says the narrator can have her forever, and there is a sinister phrasing in the demon’s dialogue hinting at things that trouble the narrator.

The woman leaves with the narrator, and they soon part company. He investigates news archives and finds her identity (maybe). Her name is not Eira (meaning snow). She had killed her husband several decades before and suicided while awaiting trial. The narrator has on the day of his narration received mail from her, with her number and a suggestive note. And he’s wondering if he’s the victim of a trick, or if he’s mad, or if there is some demonic plan at work. The story ends with, “Will I call her? Do I dare?”~~

It’s very difficult to convey the subtleties, because any really good story depends on its form and elements, and can’t be merely described.. It’s told in the way it needs to be told. The dialogue must be paid attention to. The actions. The assumptions. The hints. I can’t summarize those.

I can say that the story would not be accepted in the CBA as is. No one is redeemed. No one overtly repents. Sexual activity is the background of an extended bout of pillow talk. While the demon is evident, the angel who might counter the demon is not.

So, is it CSF?

It does not fit precisely all the guidelines we spoke of in a previous post. This one is straddling a line. Not CBA does not = not CSF, imo. But does this qualify as CSF? I think it does. Let me clarify:

The tone of this story is strongly cautionary about flirting with the things of the devil (figuratively and literally). And it takes for granted judgment for sin. There is a hell, the story says. Don’t be overly fascinated by it and the demons associated with it. If you go too near the fire, you may get burned. The devil will come at you where you’re weak. All your occultic tricks won’t save you if you do not wish to be truly saved at the level understood by Christians. In other words, the way to conquer demonic intrusion is to have the Holy Spirit. In God’s name, demons may be authoritatively defeated or told to flee.

Without being preachy, the story presents Christian ideas. Bible verses are even alluded to: “where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.” The Dantean phrase about abandoning hope in hell comes up more than once. Allusion to portions of the last book of the Bible, notably the beholding of God’s face in heaven and the eternal praising of Him. The “dead” in sin are alluded to. And the Scriptural characteristic of demons/devils is clearly presented—they are liars and not to be trusted. Ever. This plays an enormous part in the story. Who is to be believed? A demon is not to be trusted, right? They will say things with a twist, to confuse, to corrupt, and to distract.

And the story ends at the point of a key life decision. We suspect, after all those pages, that the narrator has sensed deep in his soul that this is a major juncture. If he pursues Eira (the runaway from Hell), what he is actually committing himself to, most likely, is his own damnation. He is at the crux. Will he choose Hell? (I am not even delving into the other possibilities, such as his being insane, thereby invalidating the narrative.)

For those who require hope, one can say that there is the element of hope in his realizing that he has a choice to make. But is there? His act of chivalry had as much self-interest as anything. He wanted this woman, fell for her, made his bargain, and was willing to turn her over after a couple of weeks of sexual bliss. What does it mean when he says near the end, “Perhaps I may be a man of courage after all, a man who has never truly understood his own character.”

Wolfe leaves you to make your decision. Mine hinges on a very pertinent anecdote the demon tells early on to answer Eira’s questions about why hellbound souls come dutifully to the mouth of hell; why they casually stop off sometimes at the B&B before reporting to their final place; why they don’t run away as far as they can get. An anecdote that ends with, “He felt he belonged there.”

And this is my decision about the story:

He will call her. He will choose Hell. He is a man who, without true necessity, has been visiting (perhaps very often, even several times a month) a B&B near Hell. He’s learned enough magical arts to ward off overt demon intrusion, but he keeps putting himself in harm’s way. He is a man who, suspecting a woman is from Hell, dead and damned, nevertheless finds her increasingly desirable and beds her. A man who is willing to make bargains with demons. His true character is that of a man who is comfortable with Hell. He belongs there.

At no point does he call on God for assistance. And even realizing that this woman may be the one sent for him, the way Wormwood was sent for “the Patient,” he entertains the idea of calling her. Sin hasn’t just crouched at his door, it’s made itself at home on his sofa. I don’t’ think it’s an accident that she has chosen the name Eira (“snow”). That sounds suspiciously like “error”, if I’m pronouncing it right. And she’s part of Hell’s snow job on him. (At least in MY interpretation.)

I would say that this story is just inside the line of CSF by my definition, mostly because it doesn’t minimize the cost of giving into temptation nor flirting with the things of Hell and it shows how easy it is to fall into its trap when one is doing it by one’s power alone. It accepts the dark reality of life: demons, temptation, lust, sin, weakness, and damnation. We choose Hell or Heaven, but we choose.

Elliot H. of Claw of the Conciliator blog (a big Gene Wolfe fan, and one of the Speculative Faith readers who has read the story) had this comment, which I quote here because his points are, I believe, on target:

The demon in Bed & Breakfast seems like a tribute to Lewis’ Wormwood. This isn’t a Romantic demon in heroic rebellion against God – he’s a nasty piece of work. And Hell is very real. I particularly liked the anecdote the demon tells to illustrate why people stay in Hell when they could leave – again, very C.S. Lewis.

The protagonist is not discernably a Christian – he seems more like a magician of some sort, who knows enough to fear Hell and its demons, but who still meddles with them. He think’s he’s able protect himself from direct demonic attacks with his magic, but he’s wide open to a moral attack, through temptation, and that’s the question that haunts him at the story’s end. Is his encounter with the escaped woman all an elaborate scheme to damn him?

So it struck me as a combination of a Screwtape-style story with a realistic portrayal of ordinary humans in a morally questionable situation. One point that I remember is the protagonist’s explanation that men are often just as foolishly romantic as women are said to be, just in a different way, which rang true to me.

I, obviously, agree, with Elliot. Hell knew that the narrator’s weakness was sexual and emotional (he needed to feel wanted, he needed to feel heroic to a woman). It makes us stop and think, “Where is our armor’s chink? Who would Hell send after us to do us in?”

Do you disagree with my conclusions? Agree? How else might this have been revised to fit the CBA audience? What is the chink in your fictional character’s moral armor?

What can we learn as writers?

Let people be less than ideal: The best way to show how weak people are in the face of temptation and sin is to let them fall. If all your characters resist temptation, they are cardboard. Only Jesus was able to resist all temptations. Every other human being screwed up—sexually or otherwise.

Let some characters be ambiguous and non-transparent: A character who cannot be trusted in what they say is interesting. It means you have to keep looking for clues to truth. In real life, we’ve all known folks who lie with regularity, who bend stories to their purpose, who justify themselves with fibs, who alter their life histories. Your liar doesn’t have to be utterly evil, just like the liars we know may have many virtues in other areas. But interesting things can happen if a plot point hinges on an untrustworthy character.

Use allusions: The references to the Bible and Dante are part of a conversation where they feel right. They don’t feel out of place or plopped in to make a moral point. They feel appropriate to the people and situation.

Make the most of dialogue: Don’t always be obvious or overexplain. Weave some confusion and mystery into some dialogue encounters. I would assign this story to anyone trying to learn how to improve their own fictional dialogue. So much goes on. Words are not wasted. Subtext adds interest and engages the reader. What is said, how it is said, reveals character.

Next Week: First part of the examination of “Hell is the Absence of God” by Ted Chiang. Please read it before we start. It’s downloadable online for a modest fee at http://www.fictionwise.com/ebooks/Ebook4145.htm
Excerpt: This is the story of a man named Neil Fisk, and how he came to love God. The pivotal event in Neil’s life was an occurrence both terrible and ordinary: the death of his wife Sarah. Neil was consumed with grief after she died, a grief that was excruciating not only because of its intrinsic magnitude, but because it also renewed and emphasized the previous pains of his life. Her death forced him to reexamine his relationship with God, and in doing so he began a journey that would change him forever.

EDITED TO ADD THIS: I had a really tough time picking between three posts I liked. Ultimately, I have to pick Matt M’s Sunday (long) post because it brought up some things that hadn’t occurred to me, and that got me rethinking. So, Matt, it sounds like you may already have Strange Travelers. If you don’t, then it’s ours. Email me at Mirathon atsy AOL dotsy com with your snail mail info. If you already have it, then YOU get to pick your favorite comment and that will be the book winner. Just post here, in either case. THANKS ALL for participating. Come back for the Chiang discussion.