Besides, we keep finding exceptions, do we not? Thus our hearty disclaimer goes like this:
Look at the continued success of C.S. Lewis. And even in the more-popular level, SF authors like Frank Peretti, Ted Dekker, and even the Left Behind series guys have made enormous inroads. Sure, some of the writing may not be that great, but still, this proves there is a market. All we need to do is a) publish more books, b) get behind the greatest authors, c) make the fiction more Edgy and/or less Preachy, d) publish my great novel, of course!
So the genres are actually selling somewhere. Great. No, it really is great. But I still ask: what are people using the product for? If all those books are merely serving as doorstops or to prop up wobbly table legs, it’s all for naught. And no, I don’t think it’s that bad. However:
If Christian SF advocates say: Great, at least some people want these visionary stories …
While maybe most readers instead think according to their Churchian Dragon-ish rules for what stories they will allow or maybe even enjoy: Pfshh, the kids sure like this “fantasy” stuff for some reason, and I can’t let them read Harry Potter, so I am certainly glad there’s a Christian Equivalent that I can toss at them and from which they can Learn Values …
… Is Christian SF really stealing past those Dragons, or tossing them red meat?
Though we should still push for more truthful, more beautiful, and more fantastic novels, maybe we also need to look at how many readers are using these books. But also, what about those exceptions to the Dragons’ rules? How did they seem to steal past the Dragons?
My suggestion — against which I encourage challenge and discussion — is that the Christian SF authors allowed past the Dragons always won trust with readers in “nonfiction” areas.
I’m not saying this is right or wrong. And already I can hear the rightful insistence rise that Christians should want to experience truth and beauty with Story itself as an intrinsically good Thing, not just as a means to some other “practical” end! I hear that protest, I join in, and I give a fist-pump. Yet I contend those Dragons will, with very good intentions, blast fire on anything that doesn’t look useful according to their own “nonfiction”-based expectations. And thus far, these have only allowed authors who seem to address “Practical” Concerns. They may even contradict the author’s expressed intent of why he wrote, such as with …
1. C.S. Lewis
Lewis naturally won many Christian readers’ trust with his unabashed yet winsome defense of orthodox faith in Mere Christianity and many other nonfiction works. Yet with his fiction, especially The Chronicles of Narnia, even many Christians who don’t mind the mythological creatures and magic will allow the series — for bad reasons. They may bypass Lewis’s own insistence that he didn’t set out to write only Biblical allegory or only fairy tales for children (though these were among his goals) and thus break into his work and salvage it for more “practical” parts. We need good stories for our kids that aren’t secular. And they must have a Pure Salvation Allegory™, because I assume that’s the only healthy fantasy that exists.
Alas, even Christians who know Biblical hermeneutics violations — that we do not salvage Scripture for our own foreign intents, taking phrases/verses/books out of context and far beyond the Author’s and authors’ original meaning — will throw all those principles right out the window when it comes to fiction. The author’s intent? Does it matter? I’ll use it my way.
2. Frank Peretti
I caught the end of the 1980s to 1990s craze over this overall-fantastic author’s first novels. But I think we often forget that Peretti did not first break through to publication with his supernatural thriller This Present Darkness in 1986 — he’d already been published, with two adventure stories marketed to kids and teens. As for his two Darkness novels, how much praise do you remember like: Wow, what a fantastic story, not classic literature, but with a great plot and action naturally imbuing Biblical truths? Likely not. Instead most praise seemed like: We must wake up and realize that dark forces are threatening America (and, oh yeah, the Church) and Spiritual Warfare and Evil New-Age Religion are real concerns!
Of course, I’m not saying those are not concerns. But were those the only benefits Peretti’s books could provide — Practical Use, to get people to realize demons are despicable and prayer is powerful, and that we should fight the New Age Movement in our own towns?
3. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins
On this I speak with more familiarity; I personally took part in Left Behind fandom and have even retained some of it to this day. For me, the series was thrilling. And unlike previous speculative novels, they shook some people, including myself, into considering: We should have more great stories about Christians who struggle within while also engaging their dark world, leading them to wrestle with issues of faith and how to fight evil.
Yet it was very difficult then to enjoy them as mainly exciting novels, with all the other praise coming from Practical Nonfiction-Only Christians who mainly wanted to use the books to prop up their prophecy beliefs: Jesus will come back; the end is near; and it could be very much like this series shows it to be! If you are a Christian, you want to know what will happen in the future, don’t you? And if you are not a Christian, you don’t want to be left behind, do you? (Perhaps the Antichrist is scarier than an eternity without the One Who created and loved you for the goal of enjoying Him forever?) Read the books, and okay, have your fun with the action if you must, but then use them to evangelize or Make a Decision.
Moreover, these practical expectations — and evident self-imposed restrictions not to get too creative — hamstrung the series’ final volumes. The series’ most boring character was Jesus. When He finally arrived, everything was fantastic until He began only ever quoting Himself from the Bible. Sure, it’s risky putting words in His mouth. But surely one can dare to write dialogue for our Savior, basing it on truth, yet trusting readers to discern reality from story?
4. Ted Dekker
One can’t forget him. Moreover, I would consider Dekker — and several other authors — to be among the most successful contemporary “stealers” past the Churchian Dragons. So far, his novels haven’t met the re-interpreted, salvage-for-parts fates that even Lewis’s works have suffered. Dekker’s YA books only came after his novels for adult readers. And he wrote only one nonfiction book (The Slumber of Christianity, about how many Christians have neglected their pursuit of joy in God, which he also imbues in many of his novels).
Still, how did Dekker get his start? Perhaps readers will share their views on his seeming deviation from the norm. But before that discussion I will suggest this: Dekker was already a missionary kid with pre-existing solid Christian cred. Moreover, he had already been deeply involved with a successful business venture, which many Christians would further respect.
Then Dekker went on to publish Heaven’s Wager, his first novel, with directly Christian messages and — despite the novel’s very dark beginning — themes familiar to evangelicals. His further works explored themes of missionaries and martyrdom — also familiar. He co-wrote two novels with Campus Crusade founder Bill Bright (I know that guy!), which would earn more evangelicals’ attention. And all that to win trust, long before he attained cred with less overtly traditional readers for novels that pushed boundaries and got more “edgy.”
So I’d still put Dekker in the category of someone who stole past the Dragons, thanks to his early emphasis of familiar themes. What he’s done since, though, does seem more unique.
5. Randy Alcorn
I had to mention him again, not just because he was last week’s and will be this week’s guest writer. He writes fiction, most of which rings familiar to Christians — a Screwtape Letters-style book, a novel about missions and martyrdom (Safely Home), and a direct-allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress-style story of Christian living (Edge of Eternity).
Yet with Alcorn’s nonfiction, he also delves deep into hot issues Christians want to study, including Pro-Life Issues to Pro-Choice Arguments, The Treasure Principle (finances and tithing), a smaller e-book on The Pill and contraception ethics in general, Heaven, and If God is Good (about the problem of evil and human suffering). Result: even his novels more easily steal past watchful Churchian Dragons, while others are kept at bay with blasts of the practically minded Dragons’ fire. Why? Alcorn has won Christian readers’ trust. Not by rants about bad Christian fiction or how we’ve bought into Gnosticism (like that Burnett guy), but by writing about the issues many Christians care about, helping and assuring them, and also gently challenging them through both nonfiction doctrine-teaching, and familiar fiction.
Those are all the names I thought of. Maybe you have more, including possible exceptions to my suggested “rules.” But next week in (the delayed) Stories for Christians 3: Stealing past Churchian Dragons: how can we learn from those authors’ successes? How might writers win Christian readers’ trust, while also gently challenging their assumptions about Story?