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Secrets Of The Pyramid Scheme

Do most Christian speculative readers enjoy those stories because of their intrinsic value? Or do the majority of readers enjoy such reading mainly because of their own hopes to climb the pyramid and write their own novels?
| Feb 2, 2012 | No comments |

Out of nowhere it comes, often randomly, and unrelated to someone’s depression or joy. It’s a creeping suspicion that music artist Nichole Nordeman described like this:

I admit that in my darkest hours I’ve asked: what if?
What if we’ve created some kind of man-made faith like this?
Out of good intention or emotional invention
And after life is through, there will be no You?

— from “Fool for You”

For Christians: How do we deal with such flickers of suspicion? (For non-Christians, I could cite a few verses about how they deal with opposite wonderings about God’s existence and rights to rule!) Or does this always count as suspicious? Maybe our imaginations simply go that direction to do some speculating: Hey, if God didn’t exist, if people had simply made up this thing called the Bible and Christianity, how would that go? Then later we thank God that He grants us the favor of His existence and goodness, and go on.

Still, more-serious questionings exist. How do we address those? For me it’s usually recognition of all God has done, the wonder of the world, the many aspects of life that simply make no sense, and not a few apologetics arguments based on what we observe of design in the universe, morality, and everyone’s contradiction of a Godless world.

Yet there’s another series of rather dark thoughts that occasionally break into my brain, more specifically related to Christian speculative fiction — and why readers enjoy it.

Slippery stone slopes

“Pyramid” describes this unfortunate mindset well. John Otte’s column yesterday included a pyramid reference and even graphic, which reminded me of this long held-over suspicion. However, my emphasis is very different: asking if it’s not only me who may give into, or must fight off, some pyramid-scheme notions.

From JuryRiggedComics.com

Maybe some businessperson can describe for us any difference between the pyramid scheme and the multilevel marketing system; they don’t seem much different to me. In the pyramid scheme, the goal is to make “friends” (of a sort) and more importantly gain access to their trust and resources, in order to rise higher up the slope of success. All the while, of course, other people will almost always be above you, because they’ve already ascended further. You look up to them and give them trust and even resources, mainly for the reason that they are projections, avatars, of where you want to be yourself.

Right about now, images of crooked capitalists and fake-cash-turned-real-through-bluffing come to mind. But I contend this happens in other ways, too:

  1. Teen-sensation concerts. All questions of a performer’s talent aside, I’ve often asked myself: how many of those delighted fans are there because they truly love the performer herself, and how many are there because they see the performer as a projection of their own desires and lusts for money and fame? This seemed especially apparent to me when I saw a partial “Hannah Montana” concert song (remember that?) all about the fact that people were singing and watching the concert song. So the perpetual-motion machine has been invented.
  2. Athletics. Today’s column is delayed partly because of my work yesterday afternoon to finish a news feature, of a genre I rarely attempt: sports. I am not a sports guy. This is partly because, well, I’m simply not naturally bent that way, and partly because I see some sports fandom — not all — being based upon the avatar wish-fulfillment edifice. Some men enjoy sports not because they see athletes they truly enjoy and appreciate on the field or court, but because they see projections of themselves out there. Often they’ll hearken back to their own school games and slip into that alternate world where they, instead, are the stars.
  3. James "Iron Man" White

    Christianity. This is closely related to my original point about faith-suspicions. In my darkest hours I’ve asked what if — what if some Christians who are skilled with truth and doctrine-wrangling and such, enjoy these, and teachers skilled with these, mainly because such teachers are projections of where they’d like to be? I’ll make it more personal: do I enjoy the ministries of James White or Kevin DeYoung because they serve as personal wish-fulfillment avatars? Hey, perhaps I could be a big apologetics or theology leader, and have Fans to Learn from Me.

Reading into things

That might have been easier, applying pyramid-scheme possibilities to those issues. Now to consider Christian speculative fiction. My suspicion goes something like this:

1) Do most Christian speculative readers enjoy such stories because of their intrinsic value? …

I like this novel because it’s imaginative and enjoyable. This is an awesome tale; its themes Godly and provocative and its hero, plot, style and story-world very well done. Thank God for His talent in creating this writer, whose talent reflects Him.

2) Or do the majority of Christian speculative readers enjoy such stories mainly because of their own hopes to write stories like that themselves?

I like this novel because it reminds me of my own story, already in progress. In fact, I must admit I secretly hope I can be friends with this novelist or become associated with him/her because he/she might help me attain a similar position. Yes, I did enjoy the story, but this novelist is also my projection, my avatar, reminding me of how I see myself. More than my admiring the artistry and labor of this work’s creator, I’d rather have made it myself.

It’s very difficult for me to describe this. Of course I’m an aspiring novelist myself. Of course I’d like to get published and “network,” all for the goal of sharing my stories with others. This is not sinful. I’d even like to earn a living that way, if possible. But I almost wish I were not like this. Perhaps I could enjoy novels even more, without that stigma.

Consequently, I also wonder: do most Christian-speculative readers think this? And if so, if books have few non-writer readers only, is there any hope for this genre to grow?

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

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Jeremy McNabb
Jeremy McNabb

I think you’ve actually hit on something that I talked about a year or two ago, but continues to go unnoticed in circles like ours. During the economic downturn, one genre that did amazingly well (not amazingly well, considering the downturn) but actually did an amazing amount of sales overall, was historical and Amish romance in the Christian market. These divisions were the only ones to make significant profit.

The website is now gone, but here’s what I said:

The most significant threat to the health of any Amish community is a malady called Founders’ Syndrome. This syndrome has no consistent symptoms of its own and is, in fact, not an illness unto itself, but instead, the cause of numerous genetic illnesses. Small, isolated communities, especially those comprised of a limited number of familial units, carry a higher rate of genetic mutations due to the likelihood of distant but inevitable inbreeding. The constant recycling of genetic lines concentrates errors in the DNA until recessive mutations are exhibited after several successive generations.
When one stops to consider the Christian publishing world’s fascination with Amish romance and Amish mystery, it seems a little ironic to see a literary version of Founders’ Syndrome in the Christian book market.
Writers usually write within their favorite genre. This sounds like an overly obvious statement, but for logic’s sake, its one we’re going to make. Writers usually write in the same market that they read, and in turn, both affect and are affected by it.
With such a large supply of Amish romance, writers within the genre have little need of any other books. Similar to a tiny Amish community, they begin to reproduce insignificant, perhaps undetectable characteristics or stylistic errors. The constant recycling of plotlines, literary devices, favorite expressions, et cetera, concentrates certain characteristics in each novel until minor repetitions become prominently featured in successive literary “generations.” Publishers, eager to cash in on the Amish fad, contract Amish stories in such numbers as to squeeze out the non-Amish stories, ones that might otherwise revitalize the stagnant literary pool.
These same publishers, in refocusing their attention on entertaining Christians, rather than telling meaningful, possibly evangelical stories, have bottle-necked into the safest, least alien prose possible. Unfortunately, the result of such reproductive bottlenecking is eerily similar to a practice we call incest. 

Yvonne Anderson

Interesting questions. I haven’t contemplated the matter at any great length, but my initial reactions run along these lines:
I think God approves of our questioning — even questioning His very existence. How can we truly believe something we’ve never really thought about? The evidence for the truth is abundant; a person who truly seeks it will find it, and once convinced, will remain so.
Not sure what you’re getting at regarding the pyramid scheme theme. Generally speaking, if we want to move toward a goal, whatever it may be, we need to learn from those who have gone before. So if we aspire to greatness in sports, music, whatever, it makes sense to connect with greatness. Not everyone will be great, however, so I guess sometimes a person can live vicariously through a hero, following in his wake, or whatever.
In the super-big-picture scenario, this might be related to wanting to share in God’s glory — go all the way back to Lucifer, who wanted to be like God. But that puts it in a negative light. On the positive side, God’s people are called to be holy because He is holy. So we strive for excellence in all things. If He’s gifted us for athletics or architecture or writing or health care, we should constantly be trying to improve skills. And yes, that involves following people who are farther along than we.
Concerning the small-view question, do we like spec fic because we want to write it ourselves? Maybe I don’t understand the question. I wouldn’t think we’d want to write it if we didn’t first enjoy reading it. (I’m an exception to that rule in that I was never a fan until I found myself writing it. Now that I’ve discovered it in this backward fashion, I read more of it.) I think in most cases people read what they enjoy reading because they enjoy the thought processes the reading evokes.
And those are my thoughts, since you asked.

Morgan Busse

That is a question I have learned to ask myself since I first learned there was a writing world out there: Why am I befriending this person (writer, editor, agent, etc…). Yes, networking is good, but I never wanted to use people. Beyond their title or position, a person is a person. Not a means for me to scale up to the next level.

Kessie Carroll

Wow, this is kind of frightening. People only reading certain books because they want to be that author?
I know of people who hang out with popular artists in an attempt to mooch free personalized sketches off them.
I suppose it could happen. For myself, I’m more like a drug addict, always looking for the next high. The next high being a REALLY AWESOME STORY. Sadly I’ve exhausted every book by an author who delivered a great high every single book, and I’m looking for someone else to scratch the itch.
I like to write, myself, and it is nice to daydream that someday I’ll write a bestseller (or a series of them). But I don’t read in order to some how steal another author’s success vicariously. I read their books to see if they could tell a good story. If I want to know how they did it, I’ll hunt down their blog or interviews and see what advice I can glean. (Mostly this is out of curiosity to see if they’re nice in real life.)
Thinking about various fandoms I’ve participated in, yes, there’s always the fan-worship. But when you’re fan-worshipping an author, you’re after the next goody they produce and throw to the wolves. You may care superficially about the author (please don’t die before you’ve finished the series!), but most of the delight comes from anticipating and consuming their next work.


I think that it’s a mistake to set the two as exclusive. I can enjoy the world an author’s created even if it’s not one I’d like to create myself.   But I can also enjoy a book even more because I can see myself in that place someday. It’s also a matter of what level of fame one feels comfortable with. I don’t want to be the next J.K. Rowling…but I can appreciate what she did.

Jenni Noordhoek

I suspect that part of the appeal of SF is that it encourages creativity to a large extent. So therefore you’re going to get a lot of SF writers who are readers first.  

(I write SF merely because I don’t care to write anything else. XD)  


Agreed.  By the way, Jenni, one of your posts on your Tumblr got me into Sherlock.

Jenni Noordhoek

You’re on tumblr? Username? 😀 

(**quietly marks another name onto her list of people she’s inspired to get into Sherlock**)  


No, no tumblr for me. just a blog.

Jenni Noordhoek

Which I found and commented on. <grin> 

Fred Warren

I’ll make it more personal: do I enjoy the ministries of James White or Kevin DeYoung because they serve as personal wish-fulfillment avatars? Hey, perhaps I could be a big apologetics or theology leader, and have Fans to Learn from Me.

Stephen, if you have the insight to ask yourself this sort of question, and worry about it, you’re probably not one of “those guys.” 🙂

I loved sci-fi and fantasy before I ever thought about trying to write it myself, and if I gave  up writing for good tomorrow, I’d still be reading and enjoying the same kinds of stories. I’d probably read more, since my time available for reading would increase. Truth be told, I’m mostly in it for the fun, which is rather unspiritual of me, but there you are.

I believe the temptation you describe is real, but I think it’s harder to be creative and to write with genuine emotion if you’re writing for the wrong reasons, so in the end, it’s self-destructive.

Lelia Rose Foreman (@LeliaForeman)

are most Christian SF readers also writers?
Well, there’s a discouraging thought. I’ve bought books by almost everybody who has posted here to do my part to support the genre and then passed them on to others. I would like to think that people here would buy my books whenever Kristine Pratt at Written World Communications actually gets around to publishing my books, even if they don’t like them. They make good gifts to the geek teenagers you know.  But if the ONLY people who would buy them are the people in this echo chamber, then……., um, then………      That’s a thought to make me unhappy. I was thinking that word of mouth has to start somewhere, and why not here among friends who make you think?
I hadn’t thought of it as a pyramid scheme. I did not think of my participation here as using people, any more than I thought the other writers were using me. By coming here I was learning about works I would otherwise not hear about and not have the privilege to read. I’ve been exposed to works (horror, suspense thrillers) that I would not have bothered to read before I “met” the writer here and felt a need to support, or a thrill to link to, or a knowledge that here is a book I will enjoy. Sometimes I have been badly disappointed, but that’s part of the experience of stretching out. I figure only a few here will like my stuff, but they might support me anyway, because we are all on the same pilgrimage. 
But if we climbers on others are the only readers……. Then what we are doing is pretty stupid. We might as well be writing fanfic.
Okay, now I’m thinking hard about the gal I met who told me she read one of my books 40 times, startling me into speechlessness. I need that thought to keep me from drowning in the swamp of despair. 
Am I misunderstanding the post?


I’m not a writer or aspiring writer. I read fiction (of all kinds) because I enjoy it.


That said, I do tend to read it through the eyes of an illustrator. And  imagine ‘If I were to illustrate this, I’d do it in such & such a way.’

Bethany A. Jennings

Ooh, these are thought provoking questions!  I think in many ways, I admire and look up to authors whose works I enjoy, and I want to be like them…but not necessarily in a “I want to succeed like them” way, so much as a desire to be as creative as they are, and create worlds just as immersive and fascinating.  As a general rule I don’t think I use popular authors as avatars, although I do dream of a sort of generic success like theirs.

As far as whether only Christian writers read Christian SF, I think the genre has a kind of limited readership in general – basically, believers who like sci-fi and fantasy.  That narrows it down a bit.  And as someone said before me, it’s a genre that encourages creativity, so it’s not surprising that many readers are also writers.

Bethany A. Jennings

Additional thought – I think many Christian writers start writing BECAUSE they are looking to their favorite authors in an avatar-way, if that makes sense.  They read SF they love, and decide they want to do that too, because they want to imitate the author they admire.  I think that is true for a lot of young authors who suddenly decided to write a book in their teens.  (I know sooooo many young people who did this.  Most were amateur writers and didn’t continue writing after the first excitement faded, but others kept at it and really became good at it!)


[…] Otherwise, as a reader, at best I feel a bit left out. But even as an aspiring writer myself, I begin to feel an odd sense, perhaps even an appeal to my baser desires, that is hard to describe: I only exist to write stories for others. The stories I do enjoy, I mainly enjoy because I’m using them to become a better writer. It’s all about climbing a pyramid. […]