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Speculating About The Known

Last Friday, on my own blog I discussed truth in fiction. In part I looked at an article by Travis Prinzi at the Rabbit Room (where Andrew Peterson, Pete Peterson, Jonathan Rogers, and others interested in speculative fiction also hang […]

Last Friday, on my own blog I discussed truth in fiction. In part I looked at an article by Travis Prinzi at the Rabbit Room (where Andrew Peterson, Pete Peterson, Jonathan Rogers, and others interested in speculative fiction also hang out) which explored the Christian fantasy tradition established by the authors many think of as the founders of the genre.

What struck me forcibly was that Tolkien, Lewis, MacDonald, Chesterton, and L’Engel all seemed to consider their speculative writing to be a means of revealing truth. In contrast many speculative writers today, including some Christians, look at their fiction as a means of discovering what they believe to be true.

Most notably, perhaps, as I’ve mentioned before, Anne Rice stated that her vampire novels served to help her work her way to faith:

But though they didn’t include Jesus, the writer … says her previous books have always pursued questions of morality. From the vampire Lestat to the devil Memnoch, all her heroes are immortal outsiders who have supernatural powers and who live in worlds where right and wrong matter deeply. If the Russian novelist Dostoevsky had his Grand Inquisitor interrogate Christ in “The Brothers Karamazov,” Rice conducted her own theological investigation in “Memnoch the Devil.”

“The books in a way are like stations on a journey,” Rice said. “They reflect different points on a lifelong quest.” (“Anne Rice: ‘Stations On A Journey’ ” by Marcia Z. Nelson at beliefnet)

C. S. Lewis’s “supposal” and J. R. R. Tolkien’s subcreation stand in stark contrast to this discovery quest method of writing.

Lewis clearly started with the known — God — then speculated to what truth would look like in the imagined world of his creation.

I did not say to myself ‘Let us represent Jesus as He really is in our world by a Lion in Narnia’: I said ‘Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as He became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would have happened.’ If you think about it, you will see that it is quite a different thing. (Walter Hooper, Literary Criticism, 426, as quoted by Joe Rigney in “Narnia Helps Us Live Better Here” at desiringGod)

He elaborated further:

If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity in the same way in which Giant Despair [a character in The Pilgrim’s Progress] represents despair, he would be an allegorical figure. In reality however he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, ‘What might Christ become like, if there really were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?’ This is not allegory at all.

(from a letter to a Mrs. Hook in December 1958, quoted in Wikipedia)

Nowhere is there a suggestion that Lewis was unclear about God’s nature or plan or purpose or manner of relating with His creation. In fact the opposite is true. Because Lewis knew these things about God, he could speculate what God might look like and how He might act if the world were one Lewis imagined.

As I look at our western world today and consider the prevailing postmodern and humanistic beliefs, I conclude that many writers, including Christians who claim to believe the Bible, have abandoned known truth for a type of agnosticism.

In a recent discussion (the other half of what prompted my Friday post) at Christian supernatural suspense author Mike Duran’s site, a number of commenters took this “unknowable” approach to explain why Christian writers couldn’t be held to a high standard for showing God realistically in fiction.

At one point, the idea surfaced that we shouldn’t base our theology on our fiction. True, I think, but perhaps writers should base our fiction on theology.

The idea also came out in the comments at my site that such an approach might make it hard to write good stories:

Depicting God in fiction, as I see it, requires a specificity that can actually stilt our storytelling.

While I don’t believe this is so in fantasy, I don’t know if that’s true about stories set in this world. However, good stories, by the definition of “good,” seem to me to require truth. Art has long been understood as the marriage of beauty and truth. How can a story be better if it is fuzzy about Truth? And why would anyone want to write such a story? That would be like saying it’s critical to care for the body of a car while neglecting the maintenance of the engine.

I can’t help but wonder . . . perhaps no new C. S. Lewis has surfaced in the past fifty years for the very reason that so few writers are starting with the known and speculating from there.

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Galadriel
Guest

Excellent point–you can discover things while wandering through the wilderness, but it means so much more when you have a guide.

Bruce Hennigan
Guest

Great post, Rebecca.

I just returned from a meeting with some fellow apologists and we talked about this very issue. They were absolutely fascinated that I was an author and an apologist. I had to remind them that one of our heroes in apologetics, C. S. Lewis, was a very successful fantasy author. You should have seen the lights come on!

What followed during our seminar was a course of storytelling. Our facilitator had us acting out stories as illustrations for our presentations on apologetics. I found it interesting that he believed in today’s culture, we have to reach the heart with emotion before we can engage the brain with the academic truths of apologetics. Sounds like writing a story! With my background as an author and dramatist, I had a blast. I even commented that I believed we had to combine apologetics, or seeking truth, with art to impact our culture. Why? Because in our postmodern world it seems we are writing  from the position of “Can we know truth?” when in fact it should be the other way: “Truth can be known.”

Thanks for a great post and I’m looking forward to more comments! 

Sarah
Guest

I don’t like “The Shack” for this reason – the writer portrays God in a manner that is inconsistent with the truth of God’s Word. Because the Lord has revealed the beauty of His character to me, I feel compelled to write. I can’t imagine being inspired by anything less.
We really need to keep in mind that our country is in a state of RAPID spiritual decline. We desperately need revival. My prayer is that the Lord will bless our efforts to reach our culture for His glory.

Nikole Hahn
Guest

I think The Shack is a good example of how not to write fiction. Most of the time, I just write and let the story go where it may wander. I do try to make sure that my writing honors God to the best of my ability; that being said, I don’t have a doctorate in theology or a degree in higher education. I do read–alot–and I love Jesus and hope that Jesus reaches those out there through my fantasy fiction.

Bruce Hennigan
Guest

You’re absolutely right! Writing something about God and not really saying anything of substance is tantamount to clanging cymbals and sounding brass. Your references to The Shack remind me of this tactic. It was a very moving and symbolically sound bit of prose, but the theology was all whacked out and frankly, wrong. What I loved about my recent seminar was that our instructor never wanted us to change the substance of our presentations. He wanted to preserve and advance Truth. The Truth had to remain. What he wanted us to do was to somehow convey that Truth in a winsome and attractive way that would catch people’s attention, engage their emotions and their minds and perhaps change their lives forever.

I have to continually remind myself this is my job as a Christian author. There are many times I want to wander off course and chase metaphorical rabbits because the story demands it. However, if that path leads away from Truth and into the realm of Lie, I have to correct it. We can always stay true to the Story if we remember where we write from and that is from our theistic worldview. As authors, it is our worldview that frames the story just as every piece of fiction or non-fiction conveys the author’s worldview whether the author intends it or not. I agree with you. We must always keep God’s truth at the core of our stories. Why else would we write?

I love the fact that one of the most timeless and lasting methods Jesus used to teach was through storytelling. He gave us the perfect format for those of us who “can’t not write” to use our God given talent (or, curse, whichever way you look at it) to advance the Kingdom. We are shapers of story and tellers of Truth and we must always remember our responsibility. Thanks again for a great post that has given me a lot of encouragement and a lot to think about. 

Sarah Sawyer
Member

Becky, I wholeheartedly agree, and I’m glad you’re addressing this aspect of the writing craft here and over at your blog. The stories told in Scripture reflect truths about God and the workings of his kingdom, and we should seek to follow in those footsteps. 
Madeline L’Engle has an excellent quote on this topic:

“The journey homewards. Coming home. That’s what it’s all about. The journey to the coming of the Kingdom. That’s probably the chief difference between the Christian and the secular artist–the purpose of the work, be it story or music or painting, is to further the coming of the kingdom, to make us aware of our status as children of God, and to turn our feet toward home.”

I would add that we further the coming of the kingdom by depicting God’s character and nature accurately in our writings. Of course, we will make mistakes sometimes, but it’s worth investing the time and energy into this area of our craft, because it matters more than we know.

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

Becky, your column would have been encouraging and “inspiring” in all the right ways on any day, yet yesterday your gentle yet steadfast commitment to truth, along with your commitment to solid storytelling and craft-honing, was even more encouraging to me.

Your simple division of the two different methods — fiction as exploration to find truth, or fiction as exploration of existing truth — will henceforth be part of my personal rhetoric.

I think we all know of many books we’ve read that seem to lack the oomph of The Chronicles of Narnia. And I don’t think it was because C.S. Lewis was a once-in-a-millennium genius, or because readers were more open to fantasy then (not true; he and the other Patron Saint, Tolkien, made them open), or because postmodernism hadn’t occurred and made us all crave relativistic or dystopian stuff (not true; see Lewis’s own The Abolition of Man for proof then, and the modern popularity of there-is-truth-based stories for proof now!). The question then becomes: why the shift anyway?

Again we find that the problem runs deeper than simple shifts in fiction preferences. As much as I’d like to pick on favorite targets — Prairie Romance or Simple-Minded Readers and/or Christian Publishers, etc. — they’re the fruit, not the root.

The problem is that more Christians have adopted postmodernism, or emotionalism, as a substitute for loving the God Who reveals Himself.

We saw that again yesterday, I contend, when a few well-meaning commentators took issue with the idea that God’s personal “leading” of His people in modern times (if He does this, which I believe He may) is equivalent to His Word, or fills in the gaps that the insufficient Word simply leaves out and which we supposedly need filled.

It’s a fascinating discussion, which may not be over, and I believe that we see not only examples of agnosticism when it comes to revealed truth, but Gnosticism. “God’s Word about Himself is not enough for me. I need to seek a Secret Knowledge in addition to, or even over and above, what’s written in the Bible, a custom revelation for me.”

But often in response to claims that God is loving enough to tell us some about Who He is and what He’s done, come rebuttals such as “You can’t pin God down on a card” or “You can’t dissect God like a frog.” These are overcorrections, and silly ones besides.

Rather, Christians who love the God of the Bible are simply saying, “We’ve missed the fact that God is loving enough to reveal Himself enough to be known by His people so we can find our joy in Him alone! Moreover, those who claim only ‘God is a mystery,’ as if overanalyzing Him is a person’s only potential problem or issue worth fighting, will lead us right back into the same legalism and feelings-worship that slander God’s Name, set back His Gospel and His Kingdom, and hurt and spiritually abuse people.”

Fiction isn’t distinct from this reminder. It fits neatly within that renewed Gospel call. After all, Christ Himself did not tell parables simply as means to Social Action, or as encouragements to listen to our feelings to discern His will, but to back up His intense nonfiction teaching: the Kingdom isn’t just coming, it’s Here; repent!; Who do you say I am?; This is what God is like; and This is what Kingdom behavior looks like.

I’m not yet convinced, either, that a Christian novelist who begins with even the very un-Lewis-like thought of I want to write a story to say something about Christianity will necessarily write a bad story. It may be that basing a story on Truth will naturally make the story better than one based on mere “exploration.” One thought to explore …

Finally, I still wonder whether even the shallow sorts of fiction that seem to be based on “let’s see what God may be like, in this story,” are merely putting on a pretense anyway. That may be based on the Megachurchian, seeker-friendly notion that a Christian should hide who he is and what he’s about until the last possible minute, like a door-to-door salesperson. This is not only un-Biblical but ridiculous: it insults people’s intelligence and assumes they’re weak and will get the vapors if someone, whether civilian or novelist, proclaims up-front and winsomely that he’s a Christian. Of course, some people really do claim to be that weak, but I would suggest they’re faking it too.

A. T. Ross
Member

“Finally, I still wonder whether even the shallow sorts of fiction that seem to be based on“let’s see what God may be like, in this story,” are merely putting on a pretense anyway. That may be based on the Megachurchian, seeker-friendly notion that a Christian should hide who he is and what he’s about until the last possible minute, like a door-to-door salesperson.”

Well, in some cases that might be true. But for me – and this is the point I hear these folks making – it is not this at all. Rather, it is the fact that this is an objectively Christian world regardless of what people think and regardless of whether anyone ever points that fact out. The truth of the Trinity blazes forth from the very creation, so much so that people have to forcibly repress it (Romans 1). Since this is the case, simply presenting the world just as it is – as a broken, warped, redeemed place of buzzin’, bloomin’ confusion – we are actually presenting Christ, because we are subversively attacking those repressing instincts.

Really, this is the entire point upon which my entire opinion of Christian artistry hinges. We don’t have to choose religious topics, or even include one second of overt Christian theology in our work – if we are presenting the truth about the world. Like the Dutch painters who began to simply paint ordinary houses and people, rather than saints with halos, they could also present truth, even True Truth, without a single word of religiosity. Don’t have to, but we’re certainly not forbidden to do so either.

John Weaver
Guest
John Weaver

Rebecca,
      I think there are several problems with your argument. The most prominent problem is that while Lewis and Tolkien did both search for God, neither of them agreed on who God was. The Catholic and Protestant conceptions of God are very different and many born-again Christians would still argue that they do not agree with the Catholic elements of Tolkien’s Christology (particularly his invoking of Marian overtones through Galadriel, who seems superior to at least one of the Christ figures in the novel, Frodo. Though Tolkien did warn about reading too much into those Marian overtones).
     Also, there is nothing wrong with exploring theological hypotheticals. For instance, I could imagine a novel that posits a godless universe as being deeply Christian, especially if it points out why the Christian author would find that a sad or depraved universe. In fact, Dostoyevsky’s The Demons (also known as The Possessed) engages in this kind of speculation very successfully, devastatingly critiquing modernity and postmodernity (“Without God, everything is permissible” Dostoyevsky quips).
   I’m sorry, but coming from a more liberal Protestant background (though with evangelical roots), I feel that all this talk of “dirty fiction” and “swear words” and “realism” shows just how absolutely primitive evangelical, born-again fiction is. Catholic writers don’t have these problems – read Graham Greene or Walker Percy, if you don’t believe me. You need to be focusing on evangelical writers’ still pitiful command of style and aesthetics, before moving on to consider your works theological ramifications. No one’s going to respect you if you can’t write, and they won’t respect your theology if it isn’t well thought out . . . which frankly, is a problem of much evangelical fiction that I’ve read. I really advise any evangelical authors here to check out Leif Enger or Charles Colson’s Gideon’s Torch. These are the only two quality evangelical texts I know written by evangelicals, and I’ve read hundreds. Stephen Lawhead’s books can give good tips on writing as well. But this debate isn’t even on the right issues right now.

A. T. Ross
Member

John, thank you for mentioning Walker Percy and Graham Greene! We do really need to pay much more attention to their likes to begin making a solid impact. While I don’t share your liberal protestant views, as a robust evangelical I can attest to the problem you bring up. We need to do a better job studying Flannery O’Connor, G. K. Chesterton, even the greats of classical and medieval lit, like Chaucer and Shakespeare – both Christians, and both telling profound truths about the world in all its glory and depravity. 

I have found Hans Rookmaaker’s book The Creative Gift a profound evangelical meditation on just this very thing. And has anyone here read anything by Leland Rykan? The Christian Imagination is a wonderful symposium on the subject, as is his The Liberated Imagination. Jeremy Begbie has some spectacular work on the subject, such as his magisterial Voicing Creation’s Praise

Rather than resisting your comment, I at least want to own and admit it: “You need to be focusing on evangelical writers’ still pitiful command of style and aesthetics.” We need to study these authors and pay attention to not only how they write, but how they integrate their worldview into their stories. We need to ask how novels like The Pillars of the Earth, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Cormack McCarthy’s The Road and Peace Like a River utilize all the elements of their craft. But not only them. How does Babylon 5 capture serial storytelling? How did narrative drive make the Potter books so good? Moreover, how do non-Christians build their own viewpoints into their works, and how can we imitate them with subversive power?

Mike Duran
Member

I really like John’s comment here and agree with much of it. Becky, I think you may be creating a false dichotomy between these two methods of storytelling. Anne Rice is liberal and postmodern, so naturally I would expect her storytelling to bear that out. However, that is not an indictment of the “discovery method,” as you call it, as much as Rice’s conclusions that religious truth is relative.
I’d suggest the “discovery method” is not necessarily tethered to a postmodern worldview, for two reasons: (1) We see through a mirror dimly, so even the most enlightened of believers IS still discovering the depth of the “love that surpasses knowledge” (Eph. 3:19). And as John points out, even the greatest religious thinkers arrive at some different conclusions about the Truth. (2) Discovery is a necessary as a fictional process. Even if  the writer knows where she’s going (i.e., has a handle on the Truth), the reader may not. And may not want to. As such, “babes require milk” not meat. Which is why it is near impossible to extrapolate hard theology from the LotR and The Chronicles of Narnia.

A. T. Ross
Member

Rebecca, thanks for your insightful questions. They really are important to think about, and I would never say I’ve got the answers worked out! This really is the nub:

 “I’m seeing something between ordinary houses and saints with halos, however. I don’t believe ordinary houses proclaim Christ. The point of Romans 1 is that God is seen in what He made. But why did Christ have to come, if that revelation was enough? Why was the Bible given us if all we needed was nature?”

Well, Christ came to take away sin and bring in the Kingdom, not to strictly give us kn0wledge. We need more than nature, of course. No one is denying that. My point was simply that Christians can relish and depict the world as it is without the agenda of making Biblical truth obvious because the world as it is happens to be a Christian world. We can present truth, even the Truth itself, simply by reveling in this world. 

I have a tremendous problem with the idea that an ordinary house does not proclaim Christ. It is true that  Romans 1 teaches God is known through what He has made – and this includes His Trinitarian being (Rom. 1:20). Unbelievers repress this. Yet the rocks and trees all proclaim “God made me! I love God! God is Three in One!” Jesus Himself even said that if there was not a single person left to proclaim God, the very rocks would begin to cry out. Even if we lived in a world where no one was a Christian, it would not change the fact that God made it and everybody knows it. It would not change the fact that the world is suffused at every moment with Trinitarian grace. That ordinary house is a Trinitarian house, regardless of what anybody thinks about it. Every molecule in that house is screaming at every second that God made it, and actively upholds it at every moment.

The implication (at least, the one that I hear!) is that if the house itself cannot proclaim Christ just by being, then the Christian cannot present that house as it is and it be a Christian painting of a Christian house. This then also implies that one must tack onto reality some sort of super-nature in order to make the house able to be presented as Christian like the refried gnosticism of a Thomas Kinkade painting. 

Theologian Doug Jones, in his article “Who’s Afraid of Flannery O’Connor?”, says that “In this way, Flannery’s writing again imitates divine love for the ugly and self-righteous. This is the gospel: “While we were yet sinners. . .” On top of this, when you read a group of her stories, a pretty amazing pattern emerges. You soon realize how her visitations of dark grace stand out as huge gifts when compared to actual life. Most people’s actual lives seem to be Flannery characters who never have the privilege of meeting dark grace. Think of the people around you. Think of the secularists. Most go on for decades in their self-deception and selfrighteousness and pettiness until their bitterness just grinds to a close at the end. No revolutions. The majority of people have always seemed to live tedious, small lives. But in Flannery’s world, it’s as if dark grace intrudes regularly. People who would have probably been handed over to let their sin slowly destroy them get this amazing explosion of grace that turns them inside out. Because of this, her stories start to read like gift after gift after gift. You start to long for more dark grace in actual life since it produces such wonderful turns of redemption.”

This is what I mean when I talk about portraying the world for what it is. It’s not that the world is a cold, dark, hard place of fallen corruption and vice. That’s not my story. I’m into grace, and I’m into a world suffused with it from warp to woof. But grace is rarely fun. It’s not prancing unicorns and a happy little elf. Grace is dark. Grace is bloody; it skins your knees and tears you apart inside. But it does this for your betterment. Grace is the cross. This kind of grace doesn’t come down from a supernatural place. it comes from the Spirit working within this world, through this world, and often without us even knowing. Flannery presents grace to her characters – yet rarely if ever does she mention where this grace comes from or who is doing the offering. It happens “in the Name of Jesus,” but she doesn’t blurt it out. Here’s Jones again, in a stellar essay titled “How Not to Watch Films Like a Twelve-Year-Old”:

“Natural revelation reveals Triune style more indirectly. We see a gray mountain or an ocean or the interior of a plant, and they don’t come with labels. They don’t have big banners pasted on them that say “The persons who made this are majestic and surprising.” No. We have to infer that from God’s works of arts. We have to infer divine style via the hints and indirectness of nature. Natural revelation shows us that Triune style overflows, wastes, and loves detail. Some of God’s best handiwork is hidden in ocean depths we’ll never see. God reveals His comic style in walruses and orangutans, his ugly style in hyenas and eels, his elegant style in hawks and horses. “Can you hunt prey for the lion? Or satisfy the appetite of young lions….Who provides food for the raven?” Triune style loves and shouts out to us through all these. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork. Day unto day utters speech.” Speech, and yet it doesn’t speak like special revelation. Pines and palms speak without words, without labels. We have to work to understand Triune personality. We have to infer and interpret and conclude. We don’t get a narrator explaining most of God’s revelation. Just hints, and we’re expected to gird up our imaginations.
“But we do know that He is the epitome of interesting personality. In fact, we might define interesting as the Trinity, because reading off Triune life from nature we have to conclude that Father, Son, and Spirit are surprising, unique, tense, paradoxical, unified, different, communal, precise, hilarious, frightening, and “ugly.” And it’s the (somehow) simultaneous combination of all of these that captures Christian divine style. That’s what we look for in ourselves, in others, and in films. That is the image of God in man.”

John Weaver
Guest
John Weaver

Becky,
     I agree that Lewis and Tolkien were firm in their belief in who God was, but there beliefs about what that God was differed greatly. Differences between Catholics and Protestants are not small differences, though perhaps it would be better if they were.
     I think a novel can say profound things about God without neccessarily mentioning him often. And I think it can say profound things about him while mentioning him a lot. What it can’t do is make the “mentions” artificial or unnatural in the course of dialogue, which is a tendency of many Christian writers, including this lib Christian at times. From the samples of writing I’ve seen on this site and its affiliates, I think it’s a problem many Christian writers have. Doing realistic “God dialogue” is hard, which is why I think Christians should tend to avoid it till they can do it effectively. Look at the power of James Baldwin’s Go Tell it On the Mountain, a novel filled with “God talk”, but where it never seems out of place. Frankly, some of the best Christian writing is being done by non-Christian writers. There’s not a Christian sci-fi novel in the current market that matches what Orson Scott Card did in Speaker for the Dead, for instance, particularly the parablic elements of that great novel.
         I agree with Adam that Leland Ryken and some of his contemporaries in the Reformed movement have made some progress in creating an effective evangelical literary aesthetic, but a lot of work has to be done. Schaeffer, in particular, tends to reject artistic methods solely based on whether he likes them or not – thus he throws out almost all of modernist art and writing. I’m not a big fan of modernism, but I think that’s ridiculous. The world would definitely be spiritually impoverished if we lost Mrs. Dalloway or The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I think, as I’ve said to Chris Walley before, that fundamentalists are actually far more artistically consistent and thought out than the Reformed movement. They see art (usually) as a bad thing, and that’s actually in line with some pretty advanced arguments from people like John Carey (What Good Are the Arts?) and Duchamp, with his famous urinal artwork, which challenged whether art was even a meaningful category. I think we must consider the possibility that born-again Christians can simply not create good art, and may not be meant to, because the worldview behind modern aesthetics is so antithetical to the evangelical worldview. I don’t think that makes evangelicals inferior, or stupid, it just means we have to recognize our strengths. I think there are therefore two fundamental questions:
1. Should Christians even be interested in art? Is art antithetical to the Christian worldview? Remember how much art has been used to abuse people. The most famous artist of the twentieth century was Adolf Hitler and look what he did. Check out the documentary Architecture of Doom if you don’t think Hitler’s artistic views influenced his politics
2. If there is such a thing as Christian art, what should its boundaries be (if any)? I personally do believe in artistic boundaries, because I can’t agree with Nabokov-lovers that a well made snuff film is art.  Yet, in my own art, I try to come up with outrageous situations every day, so perhaps I’m somewhat contradictory. And again, art having a moral center may be antithetical to good writing. That’s something that also needs to be discussed (though I concede that there are some authors who are also good moralists. I’m just not sure if they’re good because of their moralizing, or in spite of it).

John Weaver
Guest
John Weaver

Becky, not to take the conversation too far off topic, but I think another problem with portraying God “realistically” is that Christian fiction equates realistically with predictably, in order to create a nice, neat God who fits into Lee Stroebel apologetic manuals and Ravi Zacharias crusades. The God who asks for a child sacrifice (Jesus, Isaac) and calmly orders genocides left and right, with bashed in baby brains, is conveniently forgotten, both by evangelicals and by many liberals. Nobody’s consistent here, nor is Jesus’s threat to send all rich people to hell taken very seriously, which would certainly mean that Randy Alcorn would not pass through the pearly gates, at the very least (have you read what the guy’s written guys- I mean seriously “rape crisis centers are lesbian recruiting grounds” – how sick does a guy have to be to be quoted on this site?).

I think Christian fiction, like Ayn Rand novels, suffers from the terminal error, that one can predict which characters are “good” and which “evil” by page 3 (barring those who will get converted in the last 1/3rd of the novel). It’s why people can’t stand Rand, and it’s why she’s considered a poor writer. Good fiction, even when these characteristics are delineated, usually gives us complex moral characters – Hamlet, Othello, Dorothea Brooke. The problem with much Christian fiction is that it follows Lewis and Tolkien’s rather simplistic characterizations, without ever using the handful of complex characters these authors would always invent to make their works have some weight. Imagine Lord of the Rings without Boromir, Saruman, Gollum, or Frodo, for instance. Imagine the Silver Chair without Puddleglum (the book would literally be unreadable). And in some cases, the author invites us to explore the minds of very evil characters, like Alec in Clockwork Orange or Humbert Humbert in Lolita, not out of voyeurism, but out of a desire to understand, or alternately a desire to simply create a great work of art. Kubrick’s Clockwork has a woman being raped to “Singing in the Rain”, yet the commentary the film makes on male violence through that depiction is chilling and powerful. It is only when such subjects are not treated with deep thought, such as in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (sorry guys, I hate it), that I find the writing objectionable.

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

John, I’ll read the rest of your comments soon, but you’ve flagrantly distorted God here:

The God who asks for a child sacrifice (Jesus, Isaac) and calmly orders genocides left and right, with bashed in baby brains, is conveniently forgotten, both by evangelicals and by many liberals.

1. “Genocide” is the wrong word to use for God’s commandment to wipe out evil, pagan peoples based on their refusal to repent, not their race (definition of genocide).

2. You seem to have confused a Psalmist’s desperate cry for justice with the “God is mean” accusations.

Nobody’s consistent here, nor is Jesus’s threat to send all rich people to hell taken very seriously

And just where exactly did Jesus say that? 😉

Without clarification — which I’d be glad to hear! — it sounds like another version of the tired old myth “Jesus credited the Poor with some special virtue and said rich people were worse.” It misses the clear point of Mark 10: 23-27.

And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” (Emphases added.)

No statement here about Things being evil. That’s creeping Gnosticism/asceticism. The point is that even the “best” people, as the disciples perceived, the most “religious” people with wealth and thus time to do good works, cannot get into the Kingdom. But “with man it is impossible, but not with God.” Only God working supernaturally can get the “best” people into the Kingdom.

Not sure how one gets from that to “Jesus’s threat to send all rich people to hell.” I’d highly recommend a re-evaluation! 🙂 Perhaps this will help, at YeHaveHeard.

As for Randy Alcorn, I’m afraid you may be less happy with us, by this month’s end. 😉

John Weaver
Guest
John Weaver

Stephen,
   Last I checked, you hadn’t been elected the Protestant Pope, but hey, lol.

   Anyway, who said God was mean? I’m just saying who he is not neccessarily the fuzzy God of liberalism nor the mostly fuzzy materialist God of evangelicalism

Matthew 25 is all the proof I need about who Jesus believed was going to hell whatever fresh interpretations have been placed on his words over the last two millenia. And if Jesus did not credit the poor with some special virtue, then how does one explain the Beautitudes. I’m sorry Steve I’m just not interested in another theological debate with you where you assume your opinion is superior because it’s considered more orthodox by born-again Christians (I know you wouldn’t see your opinion as resulting from those factors, but from the outside, that’s what it looks like).

33 He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.34 Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me,36 naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’37 Then the righteous 16will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?38 When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?39 When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’40 And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’41 17Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,43 a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’44 18Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’45 He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’46 And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

I’m sorry Steve I’m just not interested in another theological debate with you

Yeah y’are; otherwise you wouldn’t have commented! Let’s admit we both enjoy it. 😉

where you assume your opinion is superior because it’s considered more orthodox by born-again Christians (I know you wouldn’t see your opinion as resulting from those factors, but from the outside, that’s what it looks like).

I do believe “my” views (actually given to me by others) are accurate here, and so far you haven’t tried to challenge my exegesis of Mark 10: 23-27. Whether I think I’m right or you think you’re right doesn’t matter. What is truth? To claim to have one piece of it is not the same as claiming to have all truth. That’s a hackneyed ad hominem charge that doesn’t help and assumes the worst of someone else in an unloving way.

Stephen,
   Last I checked, you hadn’t been elected the Protestant Pope, but hey, lol.

Ha ha ha ha ha! Again, both you and I have been claiming to have a piece of truth and that doesn’t mean either of us has claimed to know all truth.

What did you think of the above exegesis of Mark 10: 23-27?

Anyway, who said God was mean? I’m just saying who he is not neccessarily the fuzzy God of liberalism nor the mostly fuzzy materialist God of evangelicalism

Agreed. I’d add that He also isn’t a fuzzy “God is ‘love’ as defined by what I think love means.” (By the way, I also thought later to clarify that yes, absolutely we need to wrestle with the truth that God does and will kill people and be perfectly right to do this. My main point is that it’s not helpful to Christians or others to call this “genocide.”)

Matthew 25 is all the proof I need about who Jesus believed was going to hell whatever fresh interpretations have been placed on his words over the last two millenia. And if Jesus did not credit the poor with some special virtue, then how does one explain the Beautitudes. 

Do some searching for Martin Lloyd Jones’ discernment on how Jesus showed the real point of the Law in the whole Sermon on the Mount and promoted an ethics of Kingdom citizens that are impossible for normal, unregenerate people to follow. That’s the point of the Beatitudes — not that we walk away with a new to-do list of behaviors to emulate, but knowing that we can’t be this way on our own — not without Christ.

But let’s focus, if you wish to continue. Rather than jumping into other passages (or treating one part of the Bible as more important than other), what do you think of Mark 10 and what Jesus was actually saying about wealthy people? If He meant corporate fat-cat types, why were the disciples astonished at His words? If He was really threatening all the “rich” with Hell, how come He went on to say “all things are possible with God,” meaning that with God, even rich people could get into the Kingdom?

Remember a cardinal rule of reading everything, especially Scripture: a passage can’t suddenly mean now what it never meant then. I haven’t read you that way, and I certainly hope you won’t read my material that way either! 😀

Thanks for an intriguing discussion.

John Weaver
Guest
John Weaver

Stephen, I’m not getting into this debate.  I meant what I said. I want to talk about art and theology, not get sidetracked into another endless debate with you in which you question my Christian belief.

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

John, you said something that can be proved, by anyone simply reading the Scripture — a surface-level, without need to get into Art and Theology — to be untrue.

It seems you seem to want a free license to question my beliefs, which no robust (or humble!) Christian should take offense to, but balk when the same ethic is practiced against you. How come? Do you truly believe you’re above having your beliefs questioned and challenged? Perhaps if this were personal and not online-only, if we were friends in other ways (which we could be, due to our mutual interest in Christian visionary fiction!), that would help. Maybe I’m also coming across as nothing but a troll; I’m not sure.

I have my Christian beliefs questioned all the time. Sometimes I’m right and it’s the critic who’s wrong, and clearly has an agenda apart from Scripture. Sometimes I’m wrong and need to rethink my position on things. But either way, no one ever grows out of listening and learning and re-evaluating, not based on some imagined subservience to the questioner, but based on allegiance to God and what He’s revealed in His Word.

If it were just opinions at issue here, I could understand the annoyance … but it’s about Truth, isn’t it? Moreover, how can one truly discuss Art and Theology while retreating from serious challenges? How would anyone grow in both humility and knowledge?

I hate people who quote Proverbs moralistically (don’t you?). So it’s not in that spirit, but in the hope that humility in the Gospel is the clear context, that I cite these verses:

Faithful are the wounds of a friend;
profuse are the kisses of an enemy.
[…] Iron sharpens iron,
and one man sharpens another.
Proverbs 27: 6, 17

Meanwhile, from Becky‘s comment, above:

Interestingly, some people complain about God, saying that if He were really all powerful, He’d step in and stop evil. But when He did so, as recorded in the Old Testament, bringing an end to morally corrupt, degenerate, and violent nations, many of the same people are upset that He act in such a wrathful way.

Fascinating! I hadn’t considered it that way before, so directly. 😀

John Weaver
Guest
John Weaver

John, you said something that can be proved, by anyone simply reading the Scripture — a surface-level, without need to get into Art and Theology — to be untrue. But as I’ve explained before, we don’t read the Scripture the same way, and you’ve never given me a convincing explanation why your method of reading scripture, with its nearness to biblical literalism, should be preferable.
It seems you seem to want a free license to question my beliefs, which no robust (or humble!) Christian should take offense to, but balk when the same ethic is practiced against you. How come? Do you truly believe you’re above having your beliefs questioned and challenged? Perhaps if this were personal and not online-only, if we were friends in other ways (which we could be, due to our mutual interest in Christian visionary fiction!), that would help. Maybe I’m also coming across as nothing but a troll; I’m not sure. I don’t want my faith in Christ questioned, that’s all. I don’t question your faith in Christ, I just question your logic and your interpretative strategies.
I have my Christian beliefs questioned all the time. Sometimes I’m right and it’s the critic who’s wrong, and clearly has an agenda apart from Scripture. Sometimes I’m wrong and need to rethink my position on things. But either way, no one ever grows out of listening and learning and re-evaluating, not based on some imagined subservience to the questioner, but based on allegiance to God and what He’s revealed in His Word.  Again, I’m not a literalist, so this does not mean anything to me.
I do see you basically as a troll, which is why I try to avoid conflicts with you.


 

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

John, why can we not be friends?

My intent in pointing out inconsistencies is not to smash you down or elevate myself. Rather, I’ve seen Scripture that challenges my own pride in my own supposed worldly wisdom, and personally experienced the benefit of listening to others and adjusting my beliefs to fit God’s truths as found in His Word, which others may echo (even if accidentally!).

Here’s one very honest example! One of my (very sinful!) instincts in response to your recent comment is to go all sarcastic on you, and instead of trying to respond with Christlikeness, come out with guns blazing and bursting out sarcasm bullets. I could blame the Internet, or Our Sarcastic Age, or mass media, or whatever — instead, I have only to blame myself and the fact that even as a Christian, the Spirit is still changing me from the outside out, as I work with Him! How do I know what He wants? A “literal” reading of Scripture (more on this in a moment). It constrains me, and, I hope, keeps me from the trollish behavior that I do see often on the internet (though, I hope, avoid).

In that spirit, if you can show where I have actually questioned your “faith in Christ” (your words) instead of simply “your logic and your interpretive strategies” (your words about your challenges to me), I’ll gladly correct it.

So far, though, I have not seen where I’ve done that. You seem to have practiced your own professed method of “interpreting” Scripture on my words as well, reading between the lines to try to discern my “real” motivation. I’m not picking on that or saying it’s inconsistent; in fact, it’s very consistent to read everything “nonliterally”! Instead the inconsistency arises when you expect to be read “literally” yourself. I could easily find many ways you and I actually agree, if I practiced the same mode of “interpretation” on your own writings.

But as I’ve explained before, we don’t read the Scripture the same way, and you’ve never given me a convincing explanation why your method of reading scripture, with its nearness to biblical literalism, should be preferable.

You may recall from our previous lengthy interaction my contention that the people who practiced all kinds of wrongs against you — anti-Semitism, demon “exorcisms,” etc. — were abusing Scripture, ripping it from context, ignoring the original meanings — to salvage for their own spiritual systems. I’ve challenged you to consider why you’re doing the same thing. Otherwise any discussion here, with mutual exchange and learning, is constrained and limited. In effect you would end up saying: I’ll talk about anything, but only on a surface level; my presuppositions are off-limits for questioning, and you must “give me a convincing explanation” for your own root beliefs according to the rules of my core beliefs.

I don’t want my faith in Christ questioned, that’s all. I don’t question your faith in Christ, I just question your logic and your interpretative strategies.

So noted! But again I ask you to show where I have questioned “your faith in Christ,” rather than also “your logic and interpretative strategies.” It seems when I do question those, you’ve claimed I’m therefore questioning “your faith in Christ.” A result of the “nonliteral” interpretative strategies, perhaps? If so, my assumption is that it’s not deliberate on your part. I’ve been in many discussions with people in which — rightly or wrongly — I assumed they didn’t really want to go deep with their questions, but were only seeking a fight for the fun of it, and therefore I got preemptively defensive.

That’s why I said what I said about meeting on common ground. This site, though, and its basis, would seem to be that common ground.

Again, I’m not a literalist, so this does not mean anything to me.
I do see you basically as a troll, which is why I try to avoid conflicts with you.

Which gives me a chance to ask, again, what you mean by “literalist.”

Just now, I read your paragraph “literally.” By that I mean that I sought to understand your original intent, out of respect for you to have an opinion and express it well, even though I haven’t met you. Your first sentence is more “literal,” in the most rigid sense of the word; in your next sentence, though, you called me a “troll.” Here I also read that “literally,” in a sense, though not in the wrongful, rigid definition of “literalism” that would have you actually calling me an ugly mythological creature. Instead I applied the common definition of “troll,” in the cultural context of the internet: someone who just argues for the fun of it and to rouse some rabble. That’s what I mean by literal reading — seeking the author’s original intent, mindful of cultural context and metaphors.

So I wonder if that’s what you mean by “literalist” as applied to those who read Scripture “literally.” As I’ve asked before, are you by accident confusing definitions and granting the verse-abusers and context-ignorers the benefit of the doubt when they “read the Bible literally” and ignore cultural context, what the material meant to the original hearers, and metaphors and such? But if, as you’ve said, such people wrongfully abused you and violated Scripture, why suddenly believe they’re giving you the right definition of “literal reading,” which you now seem determined to avoid (but only with Scripture)?

I may also ask: what could I do to help you feel more comfortable with discussing your presuppositions, definitions of terms, and Scripture-reading methods, without provoking a defensive (perhaps instinctive) desire to protect yourself from harm?

By the way, it’s a bit difficult for me to “troll” on a website that I co-sponsor. 😉

A. T. Ross
Member

Stephen, only in part am I referring to common grace. I could happily subscribe SpecFaith’s belief statement, though I don’t particularly like the “sometimes” when referring to unbelievers stumbling onto truth. In fact, many unbelievers understand great truths, in part. In Genesis, it is not the faithful but the unfaithful that develop instruments, weapons, cities, tools, agriculture and so on (Gen. 4:20-22). The NT tells us that all we receive, including all ideas, wisdom and knowledge is a gift (John 3:27) given from Christ to mankind (Col. 2:3). The OT tells us that Christ Himself teaches them these things directly, though they do not recognize Him (Isa 28:23-28). So when Christ came and gave the gift of modern art on some unbeliever, it wasn’t a blind stumbling sort of occasional thing.

But I’m not specifically talking about that. I took from your comment that you understood me to saying that we can include less than the full gospel in our stories. This is certainly true, but not really what I was trying to get at. Likely this is my fault, because I’m trying to think about and develop a large idea out loud! 

No, if you but glance at my blog, you will see that I’m very interested in communicating the gospel in my stories. Almost everything I write about writing and stories is very obviously built on the gospel. I want the total gospel and the gospel totally in my work.

I suppose what I’m really getting at is this: how is the gospel communicated? How does the Bible communicating meaning to us? Not through abstract propositions. The epistles of Paul are generally an anomaly in that they read like philosophy and theology papers. But if we want to look at how God communicates truth to us, the fact is that the majority of the Bible is mostly stories and symbols and descriptions of tables, chairs, buildings. We have theology textbooks filled with concepts like propitiation, sanctification and common grace; the Bible is filled with concrete things like hair, oil, water, blood, unclean issues, animal sacrifice, and so on. The Bible communicates meaning to us through structural parallels and symbolism. It communicates on a deeper level and doesn’t really tell us much about what things mean; we are expected to put in the time, read it over and over and gradually we’ll see patterns and shapes start to emerge.

One of my favorite “for instance”s: When Peter denies Jesus three times, he does so standing around a coal fire. When he gets to the house of the High Priest he is said to be “following Jesus,” but then he stops following Jesus and hovers around the coal fire with the disciples of another. Typologically speaking, Jesus is the New Moses, and Peter the New Aaron. This is, then, is Peter’s “golden calf” moment, and just like in Exodus, Yahweh departs and pitches His tent elsewhere (in transferring covenant status from Israel to the Church in His death). Then, in John 21, Peter is gathered by Jesus around another coal fire with God’s true disciples, and Jesus tells him three times to “feed the sheep.” Is any of that apparent? Not really; it takes reading it and holding all the previous stories in your head when you come to a new one. 

So really what I’m talking about is writing books Christianly on this level. We tend to think metaphor and symbolism are superficial, arbitrary, or otherwise an adornment over top of reality. But they are actually the principle way in which God communicates. I have written about this

Incidentally, I also see a danger in drawing a line between Christian and secular fiction. This is in my mind a false division. But what was Shakespeare writing? What was Flannery O’Connor writing? Chaucer? Spencer? Milton? Dante? All Christian writers, all Christian works. But they wrote their Christianity into the story level, in many cases. This draws into question how we draw that line between Christian and secular stories. I also think there is a certain implication to the phrase, “we should include the gospel in our stories.” Of course, I want to do that, but what a lot of people hear (I know its what I hear) is that the point of our work has to be evangelistic. This is why we want to declare truth rather than present truth; its why we want to decide what we mean before we say it, so we can get our theology all worked out before hand. We can’t seem to put the gospel into images the way Tolkien and Lewis did and show it on the story level. What I see a lot of, browsing the Christian Fiction shelf at a bookstore, is a lot of people painting a story-image and then using elmer’s blue to paste some Christian stuff over top of it. I see Christian “alternatives” to secular stories, like fantasy stories with Characters that are explicitly Christian. Nothing wrong with it, I suppose, but its not likely to set the bestseller lists on fire either. It hasn’t clicked with mainstream readers, and I suspect that is partly because the Christian-ness is not on the story level. Obviously, this doesn’t represent the folks here, for which much thanksgiving.

To me, that’s not echoing general revelation. It’s revealing the whole gospel all the way – just on a different level than the propositional one.