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?
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.