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Salvaging Scripture For Our Own Story Parts

If human authors’ intentions and genre guidelines are worth respect from readers, then surely God as Author, His intentions and reading Scripture rightly, are all worth even more. Yet some novels’ flagrant misuse of Scripture and Biblical concepts, using only scraps of it to fit sporadically into another story, is dubious.
| Jan 27, 2011 | No comments |

Not long ago I made a New Year’s Resolution that disgusted me. To myself I’d said: “Self, this year you hope to write a novel based in part on the theme of we all by nature crave to be the saviors of our own worlds. If you want to delve deeper into this mindset, you will likely need to read some books by those who, sad to say, provide bad examples of this exact view.”

I tried to argue, but the facts won. In coming months, I felt I would need to read: The Shack.

Why? Because despite all its other issues, many of which have been documented here on Spec-Faith and also in-depth by Becky Miller on her site, The Shack remains a stellar example of even worse underlying untruths. For in its mirror universe, where Spock has a goatee and God the Father manifests not only as a human but as a woman (tee hee, so naughty!), “God” exists to serve man, as if He needs him. Even orthodox Christians fall into this on occasion. I know I do.

You may have already caught on to my past tense. Call me cruel, but I already didn’t wish to pay for The Shack. Instead I hoped to bum a copy off some awkwardly placed Christian brother or sister who’d been given the gift (because, the giver may say, I know you’re Spiritual and Like Books, so naturally you’ll love this Book that I’ve heard is very Spiritual!).

Now, however, I don’t need to read The Shack at all. Instead I’ve settled, by accident, for a little devotional that was last year’s bestselling Christian book: Jesus Calling. I’m sure its author meant the best in her “listening” to Jesus every day, then writing whatever she felt He was saying to her. Where it gets confusing is how Christ’s “speaking” to her somehow also applies to other readers who weren’t, personally, listening themselves. Even more confusing: why try this at all? Does Scripture reveal this is some ability we can expect with the Presence of God?

Anyway, I’ve reviewed Jesus Calling in part 1 and (as of Friday morning) part 2. Yet here, let’s explore a related matter: the book author’s (again, I’m sure well-intentioned) use of several Scripture verses in her devotionals. While writing in the first-person and relaying apparent new words from Jesus, she italicizes several phrases from the old Word, several translations. Like so:

You are my beloved child. I chose you before the foundation of the world, to walk with Me along paths designed uniquely for you.

This is an error I’ve seen a lot, and hope to Heaven to avoid repeating: salvaging Scripture for our own story parts. And this can apply to nonfiction and fiction alike.

Here, a piece of Ephesians 1:4 is present, but severely weakened by being placed in a foreign context: the author, apparently trying to improve on the promise, constricts its meaning to be only about walking along “paths designed uniquely.” That’s not what Paul was saying. Instead the apostle laid the foundation of the Gospel: that God chose His own from the beginning “that we should be holy and blameless before him,” predestined for adoption as God’s sons according to His will, “to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”

This is far better than simply being chosen to walk a particular path. And I’m confused by why so many people have apparently felt the revision is an improvement on the original promise.

Jesus Calling is meant as nonfiction. But it does the same thing I’ve seen in many Christian fiction novels, as I’m sure you have as well: approaching Scripture like a pile of scrap parts, taking what we like for our own preferred goals, and leaving the rest.

Many objections can be raised to this, yet the first one might be an almost “secular” argument: we don’t or shouldn’t treat any other book that way. So why treat the Bible that way?

Mr. Darcy Callling

No one takes Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice and writes all-new love letters “from” him “to” you personally. At least, not yet.

Before reading, there’s an invisible contract one signs with an author. You may use the material in your own mind, dwell upon it, try to find some Secret Meanings and even write about them if you like, tell friends, recommend or criticize the work. But in return a reader must show respect by yielding an author the honor of setting the rules for his own book. So if he says his stories are based on Supposal but include allegorical elements, we mustn’t go treating it like Allegory alone and ignore the definition of Supposal. If the novel is a fantasy, readers must not read it and say “that’s ridiculous, dragon-riding/magic/teleporting isn’t real.” And there’s a word for those who read, say, The Lord of the Rings for their own discourteous purposes, and from it steal names like Valinor or Lothlorien to use in their own stories: plagiarism.

Another example: I kept up with the recent and fascinating reviews of author (and Spec-Faith contributor) Susanne Lakin’s book The Wolf of Tebron. No, I still haven’t read the book myself. But some of those reviews confused me, for they seemed to say, “As soon as you stop reading it for the allegory and only like a fairy tale, it works better.” And yet what I’d understood from the author is that Wolf was intended to be an allegorical fairy tale. Is that an author rule we should follow? Or perhaps I missed something and should be informed in the comments?

If human authors’ intentions and genre guidelines are worth respect from readers, then surely God as Author, His intentions and reading Scripture rightly, are all worth even more.

Yet some novels’ flagrant misuse of Scripture and Biblical concepts, using only scraps of it to fit sporadically into another story, is dubious. And it shows a disrespect or at least a disquieting nonchalance about the sacredness of the Word: hey, thanks for the holy revelation about what You’re like and what You’ve been up to with that whole Gospel thing and all, but I really, really want instead to make this craft project, and this bit here about morality is exactly what I need.

When I was a teenager and beginning to try novel-writing, I did this same thing. At the front of each chapter I put Scripture verses, partial and out of context, and often about things teenage Christian evangelicals tend to fancy, such as Fighting Spiritual Battles and Defending the Faith and et cetera. This made me feel spiritual. But I was treating the Word like a salvage pile.

Not only that, but I was making the story even sillier. What it needed was not bits and pieces of Biblical language tacked on. Rather, God-honoring stories need writers who love God on His own terms, not ours, and approach His Word with humble ambition to learn it and use it rightly.

So here’s a far better resolution to make: I should not want to read Scripture as a salvage pile with useful materials for my own little craft projects. Instead God wants me to be more “selfish” while reading His Word — I should want more of Him personally and to become daily more like Him. To take that lightly doesn’t give anyone a better relationship with God or better visionary stories. And at the very least, it does not respect the Author’s right to set His own reading rules.

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Amy Timco
Member

Amen and amen! We can’t just pick out the pieces we like and scrap the rest. Presenting truths about God’s character and the nature of His work in any medium (whether sermon, story, autobiography, music, whatever) is a huge responsibility because we’re accountable to the One we are borrowing from. If we get it wrong — yikes. It’s His name and His work we are misrepresenting at that point.

C.S.Lakin
Guest

Allegory definition:a representation of an abstract meaning through concrete forms.

When I say my fairy tales, like The Wolf if Tebron, are allegories I think people are just getting too caught up in semantics. If a story portrays an example of self-sacrificing love, such as how the wolf dies to provide salvation for a human ( just as Aslan does), then we are to see the quality of live that can give us a clue to how God loves. The Bible is full of stories meant to reveal the heart of God. Just as Nathan pierced King David’s conscience by telling him the story of the rich man taking the poor mans lamb.

I use a lot of Scripture in my books– not so much in Wolf but dozens in the next two books. I take the verses out if context and salvage them, probably in a way that will greatly offend you. Yet I believe God led me to tell these stories and use Scripture to create scenes and spark emotion that ultimately will draw readers to him. I use lots of scriptures in The Land of Darkness that refer to people in darkness, but I make them refer to an actual place where people are “in the dark” wandering lost and separated from God by a giant chasm ( read: Pilgrims Progress). I imagine some will be upset by my salvaging Scripture but I make it clear my intent aligns with the Bible’s– to point to Jesus as the only hope for mankind if by reading my books an unbeliever gets curios about the Word and feels drawn to God, I’m going to dare say my use of salvaging Scripture was worthwhile. While I was offended by The Shack, it was mostly because it did not claim to be fiction and grossly misrepresented the person of God. To me that’s the key– as long as Gods nature and gospel is not contaminated, then I have no problem with salvaging the heart of Scripture.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

To me that’s the key– as long as Gods nature and gospel is not contaminated, then I have no problem with salvaging the heart of Scripture.

That would indeed seem to be the key, Susanne. But using Scriptures in the way you have described — including “the heart of Scripture,” pointing to the transcendent yet personal God as He has revealed Himself and making sure to include the true heart of the Gospel — does not count as wrongful, disrespectful “salvaging” the way I’ve said it here.

Rather, that’s just repeating truth, in a way that honors the Author of the Bible and doesn’t treat what He’s said as means to our own favored ends.

For example, note my inclusion of Ephesians 1:4 up there. The author of Jesus Calling did “salvage” that verse, ignoring the heart of what Paul (under the Spirit’s inspiration) was saying about the Gospel, and instead forcing it to be about following “paths designed uniquely.” That’s a disrespectful and un-Biblical “salvaging,” because she wanted to say something about how we should follow the right paths, Jesus loves us, etc., and so twisted a phrase from the Scripture to “prove” this. And whether or not the thought is true is a different issue: if it’s true, use another Scripture to back it up. (This bypasses, of course, the whole speaking-on-behalf-of-Jesus thing!)

All of this would be different from repeating or even paraphrasing Ephesians 1:4, or another Scripture verse, and preserving its “heart” as you have said. For example, I could say, “Paul tells Ephesians that God chose them ‘before the foundation of the world’ to be His adopted sons, thanks to the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ, to praise His Name forever.” That isn’t an exact replica of the verse. But the heart is there, and I haven’t twisted it to be about something else, such as “follow your path!” So that kind of quoting of Scripture wouldn’t count as the wrong “salvaging” I was talking about.

Meanwhile, from what I have read, The Shack indeed gets away with the claim “it’s just fiction” but then does far more than salvage the Scripture: its author not only says what he believes about God is nonfiction, but rebelliously, and sadly even arrogantly, puts his own “revelation” up against what God has said about Himself, then excuses it by saying this will help people “love God more.” It may, but with that minor little issue about having shown an un-Biblical and harmful view of God, so that they’re loving a made-up “god.”

(Edited here and there for clarity.)

Michelle R. Wood
Guest

No one takes Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice and writes all-new love letters “from” him “to” you personally.

Ah, Stephen, you seem unversed in the perils of fanfiction. As a reader and contributer to that style of writing, I feel I must enlighten you to the fact that this practice of taking an author’s words and twisting them nilly-willy into whatever context the author feels like is depressingly popular, a prime example being the the dreaded “Mary Sue” syndrome: too often, Austenian fanfiction becomes an excuse for a fangirl to insert herself into the romance. While there is certainly a lot of drivel out there (and not just in the romances), I still defend fanfiction because buried admist the debris of mangled interpretations and vain inversions are real gems.

To me, the artform of fanfiction (and I insist that it is an artform) is about respect. The author must respect the work that came before and neither attempt to completely reinvent nor completely imitate it. Both are self-destructing motivations. Instead, the author should (to use the phrase) be “in” but almost not “of” the world he or she is writing about. There is absolutely no way any fanfictionist may presume to authoritatively speak for or “be” the original author(s). However, it is possible after careful study to respectfully and humbly ask “What if?” After all, that is the question we all seek to answer. In fanficiton, the question is “If the author had written from a different viewpoint, or in a different scene, or decided to go down this path instead of that one, what would the story look like?” In speculative fiction, we go one step further, to the original Author: “If God had designed a different creation, if humanity had made different choices, if the Word had been revealed in a different setting or time, what would that world look like?”

To me the question is not so much whether or not we should “borrow” from His Story; after all, as creations ourselves, we are bound to be deriative of the true creative force of the universe (all fiction, in that light, can be classified as fanfiction). Rather, the question is one of respect for His authority and creativity, and what our imaginations can bring to the stories we write. I think the best depictions of God that I’ve read in fiction are those that don’t attempt to completely “be” God, or even fully understand and explain Him. Instead, they share moments of God interacting with His creations; a microcosm of divinity, if you will. The best example that comes to mind at the moment is Dekker’s “Circle” triology, followed by Walley’s “Lamb Amongst the Stars.” In both instances the attitude of the author and the clear intention of the story cause the “borrowing” to cease feeling deritive and instead uses the excitement of a new perspective and story to infuse novel appreciation for that which it points to.

Wow, I really need to start a blog so I stop writing these overly long comments. By the way, for further thoughts on the dangers of borrowing too thinly or poorly, see this blog post at the New Authors Fellowship.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

No, Michelle — please keep your lengthy thoughts here on Speculative Faith! 😀

Perhaps the main difference between good fanfiction (which I as someone who hopes to write God-honoring “fanfiction” certainly enjoy!) and salvaging a creator’s work is the motivation. Are we hoping to honor the original story’s “canon” and themes, and in the case of “elseworlds”-style reality, not contradict a vital part of the Gospel narrative? Or does a writer revise the story, as you said, and twist it into a self-exalting fantasy with the self as main character, the only (or main) target of all the intrigue?

… Sounds a lot like some ways of understanding the Bible, actually: substituting Self as the hero, with Jesus as the sidekick or Wise Helpful Guide, and not honoring God Himself as the Author, Director and Main Character. Hmm … Bible “Mary Sues” … (Goes off to muse further about that topic, perhaps for a future column, and look forward to sanctification beyond my own “Mary Sue” tendencies! …)

Timothy Stone
Member

I’d say that the common idea of taking what we like and treating the Word like a buffet table is illogical and immoral. Let’s say that none of the rules applied that you wrote and people didn’t give a whiff about the Divine Author’s intentions, His words must still be accepted on faith, ALL OF IT. We do not know the information that God is giving us as well as He does. If we only accept parts of it, and not others, then we make Him into a Liar. If he is a Liar, then how do we know the parts we accept are true or not. We must accept Him in whole, or reject Him in whole. I go for accepting Him in whole. HOOAH!!!

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Nikole Hahn
Guest

I work hard to not use the Bible as a salvage pile. Thanks for the tips. I’ll definitley go with more care than before. I just hope I don’t ever do it accidently.

Rachel Starr Thomson
Member

Stephen, I keep coming back here just to look at that book cover and laugh my head off.

Marc Schooley
Guest

ESB,

Amen. Very convicting.

This bothers me terribly when preachers do it; I hadn’t put together the idea with fiction writing, but it’s just as bad. Thanks for the lesson…I’ll be on the watch.

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[…] a writer’s toolbox. It echoes this earlier question. Do writers see other stories, starting with the Bible, primarily as worshipful-art first to […]

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