Why So Serious?

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.
on Jun 21, 2011 · No comments

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.”

...or any other day.

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.

Hello, all you happy people.

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.

Fred was born in Tacoma, Washington, but spent most of his formative years in California, where his parents pastored a couple of small churches. He graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1983, and spent 24 years in the Air Force as a bomber navigator, flight-test navigator, and military educator. He retired from the Air Force in 2007, and now works as a government contractor in eastern Kansas, providing computer simulation support for Army training.Fred has been married for 25 years to the girl who should have been his high school sweetheart, and has three kids, three dogs, and a mortgage. When he's not writing or reading, he enjoys running, hiking, birdwatching, stargazing, and playing around with computers.Writing has always been a big part of his life, but he kept it mostly private until a few years ago, when it occurred to him that if he was ever going to get published, he needed to get serious about it. Since then, he's written more than twenty short stories that have been published in a variety of print and online magazines, and a novel, The Muse, that debuted in November 2009 from Splashdown Books, which was a finalist for the 2010 American Christian Fiction Writers Carol Award for book of the year in the speculative genre. Speculative fiction is his first love, but he writes the occasional bit of non-fiction or poetry, just to keep things interesting.
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  1. 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.

  2. Morgan Busse says:

    I loved Hero, Second Class by Mitchell Bonds. I also loved Imaginary Jesus. Great books. Wish I could write humor like these guys do 🙂

  3. Jenni N says:

    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)

    • Galadriel says:

      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

  4. There is a kind of happiness and wonder that makes you serious. It is too good to waste on jokes.

    — C.S. Lewis, from The Last Battle

    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:

    I seriously doubt that on this earth Jesus ever laughed. I don’t think He made jokes either. Heaven and hell are serious issues. Throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus had His eyes on the cross. He wasn’t interested in playing around. Nothing in the Bible is funny, no matter which version or language it’s in.

    … 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.

    Sweet fudge-iced cupcakes, 220, do you really think so?! :-o Yes, the Bible is serious, absolutely, but as Lewis wrote in The Last Battle, there is a kind of joy that makes you serious! Besides[,] the very outrageous idea that the holy God of the universe would deign to save and regenerate someone such as I — or you, or any other believer — who absolutely does not deserve it, is seriously hilarious if you think about it!

    Now, what are we to make of Jesus’ hyperbole? Something like You strain at gnats and swallow camels was nothing if not meant to make a first-century hearer grin at the creativity and ludicrousness of how hypocrites act! And it makes the point. Jesus was sarcastic. We aren’t told whether He was laughing at that point, but we know He was being sarcastic — not just “funny,” which is a rather mild term, but scathingly sarcastic.

    Again, context is important — exegesis, trying to understand a passage the way His hearers would have understood it first. They would have heard humor. These are objective facts; you may find them in the commentaries and such you mentioned consulting, at least if one of those books is about the culture of the first-century world.

    Furthermore, it does Jesus’ humanity a great disservice to say that Jesus never laughed, as if laughter was somehow sinful. Jesus was 100 percent God and 100 percent man. Does God laugh? He must! Ever seen a platypus?

    If God did not invent humor, who did? The Devil? Some people think that. I hope you don’t. The Devil didn’t invent certain kinds of music, dancing, or any other kind of pleasure either. I do know some Christians think he did, but they give too much credit to the Devil and too little to God. Other Christians, at least, act as though the Devil did invent such things, or that they’re not Godly, even if they say otherwise.

    Ever seen yourself? He saved you and me both! That is perhaps the most hilarious and sobering thought of all. And laughing at ourselves, even unkindly, when we mess up helps keep us humble. Surely He laughs at us too, even while being serious and holy. And we give Him glory for it.

    • Kaci Hill says:

      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?
      Peter: Stinks.
      Jesus: Did you fish on that side yet?
      Peter: Um….yes.
      Jesus: Do it again.
      Peter: Um…what?
      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!
      Jesus: Boo.
      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.

      • Galadriel says:

        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

      • Kaci Hill says:

        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.

  5. Fred Warren says:

    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.

  6. Stuart says:

    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.

  7. 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!

  8. 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?

  9. Fred Warren says:

    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.

  10. 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:

    I need only one word to describe why Sandfly is such an appealing protagonist: snark. Why do I use this term? Because although I love the hero’s nobility in Shaw’s Saint Joan and Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, and I can admire the innocence, perseverance, and child-like faith of Lucy in Narnia (or arguably even Sam and Frodo in LOTR), there’s been a decided lack of wholesome snark in Christian speculative fiction. You know, that good feeling you had when you heard the playful banter of Star Wars, or even the “arguments” between McCoy and Spock in Star Trek (or Data’s reactions to humans in TNG). That idea that in the middle of tension there’s some humor or joie de vire to be found.

    That doesn’t mean the tension doesn’t exist: in fact, snark can make the tension even worse, because we care about the characters! These people are intelligent and witty: don’t destroy them, and leave us only with morose antiheros or spritely pixies who makes great acts of faith look insanely easy. I want a snarky hero who can be afraid for his life and still quip insults with his captor, who doesn’t take himself or others too seriously, who makes me forget that I don’t normally like present tense, or that first person can be difficult. Sandfly doesn’t just make you travel with him to the stars and beyond, he makes it fun. I loved both books in the Deep Trench Saga, and would heartily recommend them to anyone, Christian or not. That’s the halmark of a truly transformational novel to me.

  11. UKSteve says:

    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!

  12. Chris says:

    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.”

  13. Randy Epps says:

    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!

  14. Marion says:

    Great post, Fred.
    We definitely need more humor in Christian Fiction. And more playfulness…as well!

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