Why So Serious?
Over at WhereTheMapEnds a couple of days ago, I read an interesting interview with the godfather of Christian supernatural thrillers, Frank Peretti. Here’s the part that caught my attention:
WhereTheMapEnds: What have you seen that discourages or frustrates you about Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?
Frank Peretti: Not much. I suppose I could complain—or perhaps just chuckle—about the built-in expectations of this industry and its readership. I and other authors have exchanged many an anecdote about what so-called Christian readers expect and/or demand from Christian fiction: humor is still pretty rare, moral dilemmas have to be cut and dry and easily resolved, profanity is not allowed—we’ve noticed that it’s allowable for a character to kill, stab, or shoot someone as long as he keeps all his clothes on and doesn’t swear while he’s doing it.
There’s a lot to talk about in there, but let’s concentrate on the bit I’ve highlighted in bold. We seem to be doing little by way of our fiction to alter the image of Christians as humorless bluenoses, whose First Commandment is, “Thou Shalt Have No Fun.”
It’s understandable. Writing Christian speculative fiction feels like serious business. We’ve got souls to save, demons to battle, and apocalypses to forecast. There’s simply no time for idle banter or frivolity. The Bible seems to take a dim view of jocularity–Ecclesiastes repeatedly inveighs against the mindless merriment of fools, and there’s also that bit from Paul about the dangers of coarse jesting. Maybe it’s best not to go there.
But then, we also find this in the Psalms:
When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
“The LORD has done great things for them.”
Joy is a singular quality of God’s people. He’s done great things for us–we have a lot to be happy about, and when people see that joy, they know something is different about us. They want a piece of it, and God is glorified. This being the case, I would expect to see more lightheartedness in our creative endeavors.
Sure, there are occasional chuckles, often as comic relief between passages of bloody mayhem, or as part of an awkward romantic overture, but there just aren’t very many stories in the Christian spec-fic world where humor is front-and-center, not just an item on the Writer’s Checklist of Supporting Literary Elements. I’m not talking about strings of one-liners or a stand-up comedy show; I mean a joyful attitude in the writing. We have plenty of Stephen King equivalents, but where are our Terry Pratchetts, Piers Anthonys, and Douglas Adamses?
I can think of a few candidates, and I’m sure our readers will suggest some of their own. These folks do good work, but we need more:
Frank Creed – If you think lighthearted, dystopian, and cyberpunk don’t belong in the same sentence, you’ve never read Frank Creed’s Underground series. His end-times Christians are powered by an infectious joy that lights up each page. I like to think that a future persecuted Church might look something like this, even without Creed’s technological bells and whistles kicking the action up a few notches.
Karina Fabian – Catholic author Karina Fabian gives us spacefaring nuns, a wisecracking dragon detective with a soul under construction, and zombie hunters who moonlight on reality shows to make ends meet. Fun stories with a nugget of spiritual truth at their core.
Matt Mikalatos – His Imaginary Jesus is a globetrotting, time-traveling romp laced with laughs, a parable writ large and a disarming narrative of one pilgrim’s progress as he reexamines the foundation of his faith. Coming this fall: Night of the Living Dead Christians.
Bottom line, there’s nothing wrong with being serious, but I propose that the message still gets through, sometimes even better, when we lighten up, just a little.
At least one person once informed me, quite seriously, that Jesus never once laughed.
After all, there was serious stuff going on: souls to save, demons, the Devil, etc. …
Gnosticism gets around a lot these days.
I loved Hero, Second Class by Mitchell Bonds. I also loved Imaginary Jesus. Great books. Wish I could write humor like these guys do 🙂
Hey, somebody else’s noticed too. 🙂
It’s funny, I didn’t actually notice the lack until I saw hints in a few books and films and realised I wanted that. (Doctor Who, for instance, is very funny while still maintaining the tragedy and horror of the story. It tends to be balanced perfectly.)
I’m definitely no slapstick comedy person (my favorite humour is very dry, sarcastic, and witty and sometimes includes puns and plenty of pop culture jokes) but I do love a good laugh while I’m reading.
I also like in books when you get a taste of joy – you know, the parts of the book that are too wonderful for words, that you just want to read over and over again; sehnsucht. Not many books do that for me. Most of what I’ve read takes themselves too seriously – the happy moments are too stiff, as if the characters preferred being under pressure. 🙂
But every once in a while you get a whiff of Northernness, and when you do it’s wonderful.
(Books that impressed me with a sense of joy and/or sehnsucht: Angel Fall, At the Back of the North Wind, any Narnia book but especially the Last Battle and the Horse and His Boy, the Space Trilogy, one of the Madelaine L’Engle books I can’t remember the title to, the Auralia’s Thread books, The Man Who Was Thursday, and finally I wrote a short script that had the same effect which is currently being drawn as a manga.)
(For general humour in Christian spec, try Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga and Jonathan Rogers’ feechie books (Wilderking Trilogy, Charlatan’s Boy)
I love everything you said…the Northernness and the humor in the midst of sorrow…I put a laundry fight in my WIP (granted, before the tragedy happens,) but it was so fun to include a lighter side
Just searched for that half-remembered Lewis quote, and lo and behold one of the few results is the very occasion in which I paraphrased it myself, on NarniaWeb.
It was in response to this claim on that same forum:
… And this busted one of my personal myths: No one really believes or argues overtly that there’s no place for humor in the Bible or the Christian life. It’s just a subtle assumption. Call it into question, and of course any Christian would need to agree. The main problem that we need to know is that too many Christians are too frivolous.
Well, that just shows how much I know.
At the root here is the question: what do Christians think about God?
If we believe God is a bit angst-ridden, because He is certainly powerful but He also at least somehow signed off on some of that ability to a) the Devil, b) Human Absolute Libertarian Libertine Librarian Free Will, then it makes sense that He would take everything very, very seriously, to the point of ruling out joy. Sure, there’s no chance He might lose — oh no, those who hold this view would never go so far as to say that. But we might want to mind our Ps and Qs anyway, to avoid causing Him more difficulty than He already has to deal with. Because everything is a Gravely Serious Matter.
But if we believe that God takes joy in Himself, in being God, that yes He is serious, His love and truth are serious, but that His goal is to give more of Himself for his people to delight in, then we have time for both serious engagement of Issues and callings and missionary work and evangelism, and creativity and joy and “hedonism” in God Himself, and in His good gifts of laughter and joy, for His glory, for Himself.
Sure, the notion that the Bible has no place for humor, and Christ Himself was all-so-serious, may get debunked more often than it gets brazenly supported. In fact, I’m more bothered about Christians who don’t take things seriously enough, because this is a far more prevalent problem. Still, the opposite notion is out there. It’s anti-Biblical.
Here’s how I responded to my forum friend who claimed Jesus never laughed.
The Balaam’s donkey thing wasn’t funny? 0=)
Jesus experienced the entire range of emotions; it’s illogical to think he could experience rage, sorrow, grief, and compassion, but not joy. That’s just…dumb.
I think he laughed a lot. I just think sometimes it was at the disciples’ expense.
Jesus: Hey, Peter! How’s the fishing?
Jesus: Did you fish on that side yet?
Jesus: Do it again.
Jesus: Oh, come on. Just do it.
Peter: If you say so.
*Jesus snickers as the boat nearly sinks*
Jesus: Um, these people need food.
Disciples: Town’s a bit far, and we don’t have money.
Jesus: Watch this.
Jesus: You go across a lake notorious for sudden storms in the middle of the night while I stay here. I’ll catch up.
Peter: You have no boat.
Jesus: *mischievously* I’ll catch up.
*two hours later, Jesus executes his plan to make the disciples think he’s a ghost – in the middle of a storm*
Disciples: Oh my gosh, ,we’re gonna die!
Disciples: It’s a ghost!
*Thomas gets tangled up*
Jesus: You know…I did say I was going to catch up.
Disciples: Lazarus is dead!
Jesus: Nah, just sleeping.
Disciples: Oh, well, why’s everyone freaking out?
Jesus: *rolls eyes* He died.
Disciples: But you said–
Jesus: Is the whole “I AM” thing kicking in yet? This is worse than the Doctor trying to explain the TARDIS.
Disciples: What’s a–
Jesus: TV show from 1900 years from now.
Disciples: What’s a tv?
Jesus: Nevermind. Martha’s going to come out swinging. Let’s go.
Kaci, you should become a Biblical humorist. That was absolutely hilarious…especially the “worse than the Doctor trying to explain the TARDIS” bit…oh, that was just perfect…
Even better–my first thought with “Martha’s gonna come out swinging” was Marth Jones
I was just being a dork because Fred had pretty well covered it, and I had nothing else to add.
Realized after the fact that “Martha” had two meanings. Course, there were two endings on this thing.
Nice examples, Morgan & Jenni. Jonathan Rogers should have been on my shortlist, too. His feechie books have a Mark Twain-ish flavor that I really enjoy.
Stephen: Humor-wise, I’ve always thought of Jesus as the guy who sits quietly listening to everybody ramble on for a while, then comes out at the perfect moment with the perfect one-liner that busts everybody up. Smart, dry humor. We see some of it in his greeting to Nathanael in Jn 1:47: “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit,” his re-naming of Peter, the Parable of the Unjust Judge, and many of his comebacks to the scribes & Pharisees, including the one you mentioned.
Humor is hard. 🙂 Though I gotta say, I love it when it is pulled off right.
It’s a tough line to find that balance between absurd and believable, or the proper ammount of dry wit to weave into the story.
But I agree, that it would be good to see more humor and joy show up in our speculative ficiton.
I wrote a blog post about this the other day…(“More Bouncey Houses Please”).
I’ve been thinking the same thing myself (obviously), but specifically about satire. Are Christian’s not allowed to be satirical (I think we’re afraid to be). Then I read a couple of your posts here and it was an “a ha” moment for me. Another fan of satire! Really, I think it’s healthy and needed to make fun of the human condition sometimes. We do take ourselves so seriously.
I think there is humor in the Christian romance genre, at least that’s what I’m gathering. But where’s the side-splitting funny in Christian fiction? I don’t know.
I wrote a satirical fantasy short story this year (“The Redeemer of Effnshrmrmr”), which I personally think is quite funny. Strange Horizons didn’t want to publish it. Alas… It’s not “Christian” but it’s not anti-Christian. It is compatible with my other, more Christian focused, work, so therefore, I call it “Christian”.
To be fair, humor is very difficult to write. It’s hard to sustain through an entire work. So, that could be one of the reasons it’s lacking in Christian fiction. Ironically, silliness takes a certain level of skill to master…
Anyway, tag you’re it! I think you best get writing. And you better make it funny, or else!
I’d agree that if we’re always treating something so seriously that joking about it is not permitted, that’s a sign we have a problem. But … when we aim to rectify the problem that exposes, we shouldn’t begin by trying to add humor. Laughter—humor—should flow naturally out of a joyful spirit that pervades our work, even when we’re dealing with serious matters. The first example that leaps to mind is the “First Joke” in The Magician’s Nephew, but The Lord of the Rings is perhaps a better example of what I’m trying to get at: Tolkien hardly ever makes jokes, any more than the sagas he is consciously imitating do, but for a story with threads bordering on dystopian despair, parts of it are resplendent with joy and laughter. As other commenters have mentioned above, this also characterizes much of Narnia (especially the sections where Aslan is present) and the Space Trilogy (for example, the description of Ransom’s initial experiences on Perelandra).
But, at the root, whom do we (or are we to) serve in our writing, if not “the Lord of gladness” (as the old chorale puts it), in whose “right hand are pleasures forever,” whom the Westminster Catechism says it is our chief end to glorify and enjoy forever?
Jessica: Yes, I love satire, and I think it’s good for us to step back and smile at life’s incongruities and absurdities from time to time. Satire can also be very persuasive–simply taking a bad idea and carrying it forward to its natural, ridiculous conclusion can provide clarity and illumination in a foggy moral environment.
I hope you’re shopping that story around to other outlets. Strange Horizons certainly isn’t the only fish in the sea, and persistence will usually find a good home for a good story.
Jonathan: That’s a great point. The best humor naturally percolates through a story, whether its central premise is serious or lighthearted. If it’s glued on like a veneer or shoved like stuffing into the gaps where not much is going on, it won’t feel authentic. As you rightly observe, joy is an attitude of the spirit–a way of life, not a technique.
As we say in the theatre biz, “Murder is easy; humor is hard.”
Seriously, though, (hm, there’s that word) I had no idea that some people thought humor was antiChristian. Perhaps that comes from my background as a Southerner and a Baptist (though not a Southern Baptist). As Stephen mentioned, I normally observe the opposite problem. The idea that Jesus never laughed is, well, laughable. I think I’d rather be executed then sentenced to live without humor. I’ve always thought it must have be hard to be one of Jesus’s halfbrothers, but can you imagine what it would have been like if He was such a killjoy? Wow. I’m still trying to process this belief.
As for the need for humor in fiction: yes. Absolutely. Necessary. Especially for heavy, weighty material.
To offer an example, I’ll use a comment I once posted over at New Authors’ Fellowship for the excellent A Star Curiously Singing by Kerry Nietz:
Anybody know what a ZX81 is? I only ask because I have this comic fantasy retro-cyberpunk road trip story with a faith-based sub-plot kicking around, but I think a sentient ZX81 may be slightly too obscure (or possibly just too Brit-humour?) for general consumption.
But yeah, bring on the laughs! Imaginary Jesus is one of the best books ever, and I’m loving Doctor Who-fan Jesus earlier in the comments!
Kaci nailed it. If I were Jesus, that’s how I’d be…
Pfft, Jesus didn’t laugh. He was there at creation, wasn’t He? I’ve got two words for you: duck-billed platypus. (or is that three?) Tell me He didn’t create that and say, “Wait’ll the humans see this thing.”
Oh man, do we ever need to remember how much fun laughter is! I think the reason Jesus said “let the kids come to me” was because they made him laugh. You know, I would like to make Jesus laugh, too!
Great post, Fred.
We definitely need more humor in Christian Fiction. And more playfulness…as well!