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Rearranging Icons 7: Coming Full-Circle

The harder we try to make this icon metaphor fit into the practical business of writing and understanding literature, the squishier and messier it becomes.
| May 1, 2012 | No comments | Series:

Back again for a last tussle with icons, my words in blue, Stephen’s in black.

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Hi, Stephen!

Last week was a total bear…spent most of it in St. Louis, where my daughter’s high school robotics team was competing in the FIRST Robotics World Championships (details here). Thus this late reply and lack of commenting on the website. I’m going to keep the response part of this brief to leave room for summary comments on the series.

I’d love to find more stories that act like miniature “cathedrals,” built for right reasons. Instead it seems that many Christian novels — not all of them, as overdone critiques say — act more like “campuses.” They have functional plain walls and office carpeting, yet not a whole lot of beauty meant to draw attention not to homework, but His work.

Oh, and FYI, the final exam is pass/fail.

Yes, I think there’s a tendency, particularly in Christian fiction but not exclusive to it, for writers to become so caught up in the urgency of their message that they neglect the art of storytelling, and it is an art. Stories are meant to transport a reader or listener from their everyday life and immerse them for a while in something new and wonderful. We see the world through someone else’s eyes, or at another place and time. We might experience a world totally different from our own where things can happen that are impossible here. When that delicate bubble of immersion is lost through clumsy writing, or a sales pitch, or a product placement, or a reminder that there’s going to be a test on this material in a few minutes to make sure everyone’s been paying attention, the opportunity to communicate those things we care about can be lost forever.

These quotes may help clarify my starting point. Kinkade did say he wanted to “portray a world without the Fall.” Interestingly, he also recognized his own paintings as iconic — something I wish I had read from him before writing last week’s column. “I want to build the new iconography for the coming millennium,” he said 12 years ago.
Yes, that’s interesting. Hmm. I hadn’t expected anything quite so grandiose. If that was his intent, I really don’t see it in the art, and it seems much too generic and unfocused to qualify as iconography, even using the term generously. It reminds me a lot of Currier and Ives–greeting card images. It doesn’t so much portray a world without sin as snapshots of our world as it is, at those times when sin doesn’t intrude into the field of view. The brokenness is still there, we’re just not looking at it.
I don’t really have a problem with that sort of picture, in small doses. It’s pretty and pleasant, if not challenging. I can stroll though the woods having a wonderful time enjoying the beauty of God’s creation and easily forget for a few moments that I’m living in a fallen world. We all need moments like that, I think.
Again — and especially not wishing to speak ill of him personally — legitimate Kinkade criticisms fault not the artist, but the viewer/consumer, for “making” his paintings into iconography that minimizes sin and therefore God’s victory over it.
Well, he seems to have promoted the idea his art was iconic, and I can’t really blame people for not wanting to constantly rub the reality of sin into their own noses.
Chocolate cake is good. But if I had a child who only wanted to eat it for every single meal, only yelling at him about it is not the answer. The child needs to grow, in his maturity and in his understanding of other kinds of food. For example, what about chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream? Even among sweets, there’s more than one kind.
There’s still a tone of frustration with the whole issue of people glomming onto “bad” art. Why won’t these idiots just eat their vegetables, and like it? I might respond that there’s a genuine emotional need at the root of some of these preferences we’re quick to mock as poor taste or depraved perception. Critics and writers alike could benefit from pondering why some art and literature that shouldn’t work at all manages to attract an enthusiastic following.

Epic stories glorify our Author by showing the growth of characters into “icons.”

They can, but there aren’t many examples of characters, as compared to the total population, who actually manage this. And that’s okay. The community of characters we can rightly call icons in the truest sense of the word should be an elite group.

It sounds like you were thinking in the sense of popular-iconic. Like shiny CGI blue people with large over-friendly golden eyes. Or Indiana Jones’ hat. Or Superman’s cape.

Surely you jest.

Okay, now you’re just yanking my chain. 🙂  Popularity only scratches the surface, and it’s usually transitory. An iconic character is timeless because they reflect an eternal longing within us. Out of the millions of characters conceived since we began telling stories, a few stand above the rest, and I think if we all sat down for an hour or so and composed our own short list of such characters, we’d agree more often than not.

By contrast, I’d been thinking about this first in the sense of a character trying to be like the ultimate Character/Icon, Christ (or a fantasy-world equivalent). Yet this is similar to a character who wants to be like an idealized icon in his story-world. Luke wants to be the best Jedi Knight. Peter Parker wants to be a great superhero. Aang wants to fulfill his mission as the Avatar, master of all four elements among the four nations. All of those are in a sense quests for “perfection.” They’re what drives the character’s actions.

And most of that is simply muddling through. The characters have only a glimmer of what it is they’re searching for and what it all means. We identify with them because we do the same kinds of things and make similar mistakes along the way in our lives. When the characters keep faith with their quests, and press on when everyone is telling them they don’t have a chance, they transcend their weaknesses and overcome their foes and obstacles. In witnessing their victories, we envision hope for an epiphany of our own, if we endure to the end.

The icon is a point of reference, a target, a bar set a few inches above our personal best.

Exactly. And it seems that in reality and stories, the threshold of “perfection” will always be higher than the person can ever reach. Christ is in His place and we’re in ours, unable to rise further because He was first and always. In reality, we should prefer it that way.

And yet, He calls to us, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It’s compelling, and terrifying.

A character is trying to be an icon, an image of the Greater, but hasn’t yet arrived. This leads to a story’s plot. Heroes (and even villains) have not yet achieved their goals.

From the character’s point-of-view, I don’t see this happening very often. Characters are mostly trying to just live their life, or survive to see another sunrise. Their personal growth is something they don’t realize until near the end of their story, though that journey is visible to the reader and part of what keeps us engaged.

It depends on the story type. If it includes a Christian character (or fantasy-world equivalent), he is indeed on a conscious mission. It’s not just about survival, but of proactive battle against his own nature and external enemies, and desire to please and become like the One Who saved him. Of course, all that is a grandiose simplification, because often that grand battle appears very dull in one’s life!
As Edmund Pevensie said, I think, “Adventures are never fun while you’re having them.”While what you’ve described is admirable, I think something’s lost when we make the character’s journey obvious and by-the-numbers, as often happens when folks try to write Christian fiction. “Here’s Christian X. He’s traveling from Point A to Point B, where he’ll become Better Christian Y.” The reader loses interest almost before we’ve departed Point A.

Dorothy’s trip to Oz becomes much more illuminating in retrospect when we realize it’s never been about making it back to Kansas–she could have gone home any time she wanted to. Her adventures help her understand that everything she’d ever wanted was right there with the friends and family she’d taken for granted. She’d been searching for a Wizard to solve her problems, but he had nothing to offer she didn’t already possess. The power of the story lies in the fact she spends most of it pursuing the wrong goal, yet through persevering on the journey, she gains a wisdom that is more valuable than anything she (or we, if we were encountering the story for the first time) expected.

Likewise, to use some of your examples, Luke Skywalker’s quest takes on an entirely different meaning once he discovers his father’s true identity. Peter Parker learns that “with great power comes great responsibility,” and the lesson costs him dearly. Aang enters the Avatar State and finds the destination of his journey as much a threat to his soul as a solution.Thus, as I wrap up, a summary of one “formula” resulting from this series.

  1. God is the Axiom, the image of no one. He is Himself, the I AM.
  2. Jesus Christ, fully God and fully Man, the second Person of the Trinity, in His eternal existence as the God-Man, is the “icon” of God (Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3).
  3. As redeemed saints, Christians are “icons” of Christ (Rom. 6:5, 1 John 3:2).
  4. Likewise, story characters are “icons” of us, in their complexities and choices.

Sigh. Yeah, maybe. These are true statements, but as a formulation, it gives me an image of characters designed like little Russian nesting dolls, and that doesn’t feel natural. In a way, it’s emblematic of this entire discussion. The harder we try to make this icon metaphor fit into the practical business of writing and understanding literature, the squishier and messier it becomes. We began with something that sounded like an Ideal Form in the Platonic sense and we’ve come back around to characters that resonate with us precisely because they resemble our fallible, vulnerable selves. We’ve covered the spectrum from characters that represent our most noble and exalted aspirations to characters that give us hope because they’re slogging through the mud of life right beside us. Very different conceptions of “icons,” but each true and important in their own way.

And for me, that’s the bottom line. Show me Christ, of course, but don’t forget He’s the Way, the Truth and the Life. Show me truth. Show me truth in action. Show me truth lived out in a real world filled with real people with real problems, even if it’s a thousand light-years away and runs on magic. Show me truth illustrated so vividly I can feel it to my very core. Don’t tell me what to believe and then figuratively stand off to one side waiting for me to come around to the merit of your argument. Instead, invite me to share a world that will leave me no choice but to believe, once I’ve experienced it.

This has been fun. We ought to do it again sometime, maybe with a topic a little less formidable.

Fred

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Galadriel
Guest

That’s one thing I appreciate about these posts, and the general tone of discussion at Speculative Faith: a willingness to admit when all this talking really isn’t getting anywhere and we’re starting to get nonsense.  I am in a writing class at a Christian college right now, and it doesn’t feel like we have enough acknowledgement of “okay, enough talking for now.”  I get so fed up with the theories in that class..

Kessie Carroll
Member

I recently wrote a blog post about this same thing.
 
http://netraptor.org/blog/2012/04/why-christian-spec-fic-writers-shouldnt-include-jesus/
 
My conclusion being that we shouldn’t try to include a Jesus figure at all, or even try to write about Christians. Just tell a good story. If there’s a redemption message, it should arise organically in the story. We shouldn’t strive to tell a sermon. It’s when readers come to us, the authors, enthused about our stories and wanting to meet us, that we have a chance to witness.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

It sounds like everyone is agreeing that the discussion isn’t “going anywhere” and that it’s ended at about the right time. I also agree, yet I do wonder whether perhaps the goal has been misunderstood. What, after all, do we mean by “going anywhere”?

At the risk of sounding loosey-goosey postmodern, the conversation itself has, at least for me, helped to push my imagination in different directions. Because icons, or whatever you wish to call them, touch on so many life areas — religious, fictitious, and beyond — this is likely more relevant than even we know. And I doubt anyone’s intent was to “get anywhere,” e.g., master the topic. We’re dealing with profound mysteries here, about the nature of Christ the God-Man, how God’s image (the imago Dei) is reflected in even fallen people, and how “icons” remind us of Him, or ourselves.

Anyway, I agree with Fred that we should try this again, with a less-formidable topic!

Some thoughts for continuing conversation, and also to clarify:

I think there’s a tendency, particularly in Christian fiction but not exclusive to it, for writers to become so caught up in the urgency of their message that they neglect the art of storytelling, and it is an art.

And in fact, storytelling as art that starts as art in fact does better “preaching.” It fleshes out truth, putting skin on it, singing it if you will, rather than simply repeating it.

Stories are meant to transport a reader or listener from their everyday life and immerse them for a while in something new and wonderful. We see the world through someone else’s eyes, or at another place and time. We might experience a world totally different from our own where things can happen that are impossible here.

And for the Christian, God is glorified. We “get” more of His wonders in fiction, in a way that we could never experience by hearing another sermon, or by reading a sermon wrapped in the guise of fiction. God is glorified uniquely in fiction; sermons can’t match it. Citation: the Bible gives us not only Romans and 1 and 2 Kings, but Psalms.

When that delicate bubble of immersion is lost through clumsy writing, or a sales pitch, or a product placement, or a reminder that there’s going to be a test on this material in a few minutes to make sure everyone’s been paying attention, the opportunity to communicate those things we care about can be lost forever.

Amen. Because the reader feels betrayed (or should feel betrayed!). The material becomes a smaller something to use, not an epic, imaginative something that uses you. The humility of experiencing this other-world is lost, exchanged for a kind of arrogance. This story isn’t really real, and I won’t be “taken in.” Instead I must “use” this for my own ulterior goals. Or: This is just to keep the kiddies entertained.

Yes, that’s interesting. Hmm. I hadn’t expected anything quite so grandiose. If that was [Kinkade’s] intent, I really don’t see it in the art, and it seems much too generic and unfocused to qualify as iconography, even using the term generously.

Definitely. I think that does seem a bit far-fetched. Kinkade’s paintings were simple, pretty little pieces, not emblematic of Perfect Christian Art, or iconic, or horribly subversive of Real Art. I’m with you in saying that when we get rid of those silly assumptions or reactions, we can enjoy what he gave the world, in perspective.

It reminds me a lot of Currier and Ives–greeting card images. It doesn’t so much portray a world without sin as snapshots of our world as it is, at those times when sin doesn’t intrude into the field of view. The brokenness is still there, we’re just not looking at it.

Again agreed. Any problems result in the abuse of this kind of art, not necessarily in the artist himself. From what I’ve heard, some Christians, though, have done the equivalent of chopping out all the Psalms that extol God’s Law or lament our sinful world, and only enjoyed the “happy” Psalms. God gives us many kinds of Psalms even in that one work of Spirit-inspired literature; that’s His “full body of work” in that collection.

I don’t really have a problem with that sort of picture, in small doses. It’s pretty and pleasant, if not challenging. I can stroll though the woods having a wonderful time enjoying the beauty of God’s creation and easily forget for a few moments that I’m living in a fallen world. We all need moments like that, I think.

Yep. And that’s why we can all make a little fun of exclusive focus on Gritty Reboots™ or “realistic” fiction. C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape “wisely” reminded us that “the real world” isn’t just horrible things, but beautiful things, and it is the devils, not the angels, who want to make us forget that the beautiful things are just as real as the horrors.

Well, he seems to have promoted the idea his art was iconic, and I can’t really blame people for not wanting to constantly rub the reality of sin into their own noses.There’s still a tone of frustration with the whole issue of people glomming onto “bad” art. Why won’t these idiots just eat their vegetables, and like it? I might respond that there’s a genuine emotional need at the root of some of these preferences we’re quick to mock as poor taste or depraved perception.

I’d love to explore this in future works — or rather, sit back and let you do it. The last thing I would want to do is condemn any craving for some kind of beauty as terribly unspiritual and legalistic. Ultimately, all our cravings for beauty have their limits and should be conformed better to the final and first Standard of Beauty, God Himself.

Critics and writers alike could benefit from pondering why some art and literature that shouldn’t work at all manages to attract an enthusiastic following.

Somehow sparkling vampires leap to mind. …

I’m no populist, but I think I’m with you that while the masses are never all “wrong” or all “right” here. Popular art and literature gets popular for reasons that, under the abuses and sin-twistings of humans, are ultimately good. It just takes some work to cut through the per-versions of sin, to find an underlying, redeemable good desire.

Okay, now you’re just yanking my chain. Popularity only scratches the surface, and it’s usually transitory. An iconic character is timeless because they reflect an eternal longing within us.

Here’s the distinction I was making: it’s between a character who is an icon, naturally, by representing a human being or type of human being, and a character who has proved so timeless and endearing that he/she indeed becomes iconic. An icon of icons.

Out of the millions of characters conceived since we began telling stories, a few stand above the rest, and I think if we all sat down for an hour or so and composed our own short list of such characters, we’d agree more often than not.

Frodo Baggins. Gandalf. Aslan. Superman. Harry Potter. Ebenezer Scrooge. More?

Okay, here’s a problem. Or maybe it’s not really a problem. I can’t think of any “evangelical” character who takes that role. This may be inevitable for two reasons:

  1. All the icons in my impromptu list have been adapted for major motion pictures.
  2. Christians just aren’t that numerous, or else media-aware, to make “their” characters icons — with the obvious exceptions of “crossover” characters such as Frodo Baggins, Gandalf, or Aslan. (And Gandalf himself is inspired by Merlin.)

[My original text] In reality and stories, the threshold of “perfection” will always be higher than the person can ever reach. Christ is in His place and we’re in ours, unable to rise further because He was first and always. In reality, we should prefer it that way.

And yet, He calls to us, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It’s compelling, and terrifying.

Thank God He also equips us for that command, by clothing us in Christ’s righteousness and empowering us with His Spirit to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling,” knowing that God is working in us (Phi. 2: 12-13).

As Edmund Pevensie said, I think, “Adventures are never fun while you’re having them.” While what you’ve described is admirable, I think something’s lost when we make the character’s journey obvious and by-the-numbers, as often happens when folks try to write Christian fiction. “Here’s Christian X. He’s traveling from Point A to Point B, where he’ll become Better Christian Y.” The reader loses interest almost before we’ve departed Point A.

Agreed. I think that’s because of some false notions of our own real-life character journeys. We don’t master, 100 percent, any particular sin, and then “level up” with experience points, never to fall into that sin again. We can get better, and then have a bad night’s sleep or a bad day and then, thanks to the old man of the flesh (Romans 6), down we go again. I’ve seen this represented by graphs that contrast the false view of Christian growth — a semi-straight line, sloping gradually up from left to right — with a more-accurate view — a jagged series of curves and dips, still gradually sloping up and generally getting better, but with plenty of huge and wide plunges along the way!

Good character growth will be much the same. Sir Rockcastle the Heroic may have conquered his fears in Book 1, and learned to communicate his feelings, and rescued the damsel and gotten married in Book 2. But if the author has any sense and knows his or her own struggles, Sir Rockcastle has not totally conquered all fear or other sins.

I like your Oz example, though I’ve never quite understood the appeal of The Wizard of Oz film itself (1939). Seems like an odd drug trip to me (along with humanistic philosophy, if you overthink it). I suppose one would have had to grow up with it!

Likewise, to use some of your examples, Luke Skywalker’s quest takes on an entirely different meaning once he discovers his father’s true identity. Peter Parker learns that “with great power comes great responsibility,” and the lesson costs him dearly. Aang enters the Avatar State and finds the destination of his journey as much a threat to his soul as a solution.

The misdirected quest, or original quest that is superseded by a greater need — another potential topic for another series.

Sigh. Yeah, maybe. These are true statements, but as a formulation, it gives me an image of characters designed like little Russian nesting dolls, and that doesn’t feel natural. In a way, it’s emblematic of this entire discussion. The harder we try to make this icon metaphor fit into the practical business of writing and understanding literature, the squishier and messier it becomes.

Agreed. Like characters themselves, striving to become accurate “icons” and much more so “iconic” like that short list of famous heroes, we can only approach this invisible, asymptote-like line of wrapping our rhetoric and imaginations around this.

As I said in response to this, in my earlier email to you:

Thanks for your time, and for participating in this series adventure. By the way, I agree that trying to “contain” icon explanations in words is hard. That’s also why I get frustrated at writers’ conferences. Enough about the Methods and Techniques and Explanations already; excuse me from this session, please, so I can go do more writing. That usually happens about one day into the event.

And for me, that’s the bottom line. Show me Christ, of course, but don’t forget He’s the Way, the Truth and the Life. Show me truth. Show me truth in action. Show me truth lived out in a real world filled with real people with real problems, even if it’s a thousand light-years away and runs on magic. Show me truth illustrated so vividly I can feel it to my very core.

(Joins in on the chorus) Don’t just repeat the Gospel or seek to explain it, a la the book of Romans. I’ll do that when I read Romans or hear or read a sermon about it. Give us stories and literature like the book of Psalms, that make us feel and experience these truths vicariously. Is this “useful” when we’re in similar real-life situations? Maybe. But is this useful mainly to reflect to us more of the ultimate Icon Himself, Christ? Oh yes.

Don’t tell me what to believe and then figuratively stand off to one side waiting for me to come around to the merit of your argument. Instead, invite me to share a world that will leave me no choice but to believe, once I’ve experienced it.

Recently I heard a nonfiction-oriented guy, pastor J.D. Greear, say this in a way I haven’t heard before. We make such a case here not just because this is more effective, or because it’s more logical, or even because it’s How a Story Should Be and it’s artful. Instead, it’s a downright Biblical case to make, based on how God reveals Himself.

Faith comes by revelation. It’s as God reveals the beauty of Who He is. And I would say that a lot of Western approaches to the Gospel altogether have treated it as if it’s providing a better, logical answer. I’m all into logic. All into providing better answers. Just understand, there’s something about the sight. Every time God reveals Himself in the Bible it’s the sight of His beauty that overwhelms.

Galadriel
Guest

Don’t just repeat the Gospel or seek to explain it, a la the book of Romans. I’ll do that when I read Romans or hear or read a sermon about it. Give us stories and literature like the book of Psalms, that make us feel and experience these truths vicariously.

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This is one reason I think there should be more Biblical fictions–to remind us that there are PEOPLE in the Bible stories, people with headaches and faith and odd things like that. Because otherwises, we just see them as flannelgraphs and cartoons.

Kaci Hill
Member

Well said. It’s also why I think, one, we shouldn’t distinguish between historical and Biblical fiction (that is, it’s more accurate to use Biblical as as subgenre of historical in the way Civil War – era historical fiction is), and, two, not treat the Bible the same way we do a piece of fiction.