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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Perfection and the Church

Recently, it seems I've heard a good bit about Christian fiction and how so much of it paints a "Beaver Cleaver" perfect picture of Christians. The CBA publishers and readers have been especially labeled with this accusation, of not portraying "real" people. Though that has and is changing to a large degree, there is no doubt that especially in Christian romance's history, such portrayals have been the rule more than the exception.

And this is not to suggest that we shouldn't show people who are doing the right thing as well. Indeed, there are such people in the world and the only reason some people consider them unrealistic is because they hang out with the wrong crowd and so have never met them. Or they tend to project their own sins upon everyone else in hopes of not feeling so bad about themselves.

But the truth is, no one is perfect, save one. And none of us are Him. And even those that are portrayed as doing the right thing will have their faults and failings, whether we show them or not. Because we live in a fallen world, even the most spiritual among us will fall at points, be hypocritical at points, and flat out sin, and be in need of God's grace and forgiveness. It is why Jesus told Peter when Peter didn't want Him to wash his feet, that if He didn't wash Peter's feet, Peter would have no part with Him. Feet get dirty even among the cleanest of us.

But I would suggest that these perfect Christians that are so often portrayed in Christian literature in times past, are a symptom of our current Christian culture that is fueling a movement more and more away from the Christian ideal that started with Jesus' disciples. If you go back into early Christian literature, one of the most important aspects of the Church was to preserve its unity, to preserve the union of the Body of Christ in all ways, including physically meeting together as one church. But in the last few hundred years, it has instead become more and more splintered until now there are so many groups labeled as Christian who don't associate with each other that it has grown into the thousands.

And while this movement started some time ago, it is now gaining steam as Mike Duran talks about in his blog post, Is the Church Really to Blame for the “Nones”? That was actually the first time I'd heard of the term, but it describes all those who under religious affiliation select "None of the above." They believe in God, but for whatever reason have given up on any kind of organized religion in favor of a denomination of one.

I was wondering why this might be the case. After all, we are commanded not to forsake the gathering of ourselves together. Why has the move to go back to the early church's paradigms fractured Christianity instead of uniting it? If Jesus prayed that we all be one as He and the Father were one, and I would find it hard to think of the two existing in separate churches, was His prayer a pipe dream or a reality to attain?

We could talk about secularism here as a reason. And there would be some reality to that charge. We all grow up with a secular philosophy, a secular view of how the world works, even many Christians see it that way. So it is no wonder that we tend to think everyone just getting along, being relativistic in their beliefs and such is what is really important. What I think is what is important, not what some theologian said hundreds of years ago. Because I'm more modern and have a better understanding of things. Which may be true in a scientific sense, but maybe not so true in a revelational sense. The closer one is in time to the revelation, the more you understand its cultural and worldview underpinnings, meanings that to them were obvious, but to us are a mystery because we are so far removed from that language and culture and its idioms. We tend to overlay our own cultural assumptions on it and come up with different interpretations of the revelations, which is a large part of why as time moved on from the revelation, that interpretations have tended to fracture when not checked by the whole.

But really I think this goes back to two things. One is pride that refuses to submit to authority, to acknowledge that if my interpretation disagrees with the bulk of understanding throughout Church history, guess who is likely to be wrong? Humility, so praised in the Scriptures, comes about through obedience and submission. Both things we see as slavery, being taken advantage of, of trampling upon my rights. And the last thing we want to do is to submit to a church authority that could be just as sinful as we are. So pride tells the individual that they have it right, and everyone else has it wrong, or is okay for them, but not for me. And we like to believe, have often put on the front at church that we are perfect in our Christian walk. And we only want to associate with Christians we see as perfect. And when someone says something we disagree with, who isn't living as they should by our definition, we shun them.

I actually have a couple of scenes in my next book that plays upon that reality, in a town called "Paradise" where everyone believes they are perfect and kills anyone who they don't perceive is. It is contrasted with the real Paradise. It will come out this summer, in the final book of The Reality Chronicles, Reality's Glory.

But this ideal we have set up in our Christian literature of the perfect Christian not only reflects the above pride we have, but sets us up for what we are experiencing. We should, like Christ, expect to find sinners and adulterers and hypocrites in any group of people. Jesus' answer to the hypocrisy of the Pharisees wasn't to dump Judaism. He claimed to fulfill the Old Testament "official" religion, not get rid of it. He obeyed the rituals, said to obey the Pharisees, just don't do what they do, only what they say. All the while He was bringing religion back to its roots and where God had intended for it to go, it was the religious leaders who left Jesus because they didn't recognize him as the Son of God. The few that did, like Nicodemus, followed Christ.

But He never said, "My Father had a good idea with all these ritual things and the temple. But it just didn't turn out like we thought it would. So let's ditch that and start over." Yet, nearly every "reformation" of religion has sought to reform by leaving rather than working within to unite. Because when they didn't agree with our interpretation, which they knew had to be right, they ditched their authorities and started their own group. And that has continued until finally, disillusioned at finding a group that believes exactly as I do, they go it alone, refusing to associate, like Jesus did with sinners, with those hypocrites.

But here's the reality. No one person will have the whole truth. That is a given in relativistic thinking. Because my truth is not your truth, so they say, not believing in any absolute truths, even if they believe in a God, often of their own making. But no matter who you are, how much you have studied, what degrees you have behind your name, no one but Jesus Christ would ever have it all right. I'm sure I hold beliefs and underlying views that are wrong. I'm sure there are actions I've committed which go against my beliefs and morals. Why? Because I'm finite, human, and unlike God, I'm not infallible. All of us are hypocrites because none of us have followed perfectly our own moral code and beliefs.

And because of that reality, no one in any church group will be either. And that is why Jesus said He was called to the sick, not the healthy. If you think you have it all together, are correct in all you believe, and that everyone else is in error, Jesus did not come for you. You're on your own. No, God's prescription for those who are called by His name are that they are humbled before God and man, seek His face, and admit they are sinners. Even, as St. Paul said, the chief of sinners. Then will He hear you, forgiven you, heal you, and call you one of His.

Now, what's more important? To feed your pride and think you have it all nailed down so well that you can ditch all the other Christians in the world and not associate with them or submit to anyone? Or to be called by God as one of His chosen people? Are we willing to accept the position of door keeper for the joy of being in God's house over the exalted position of our own making? Are we ready to admit that we too are sick and need Christ as much as that hypocrite over there? And if so, are we called to minister to them, or not associate with them? Read the Scriptures, see what Jesus did, and if you have an open mind, the answer will be obvious.

When we give up on us being right all the time, and accept that the Church, the Body of Christ, is full of flawed sinners and morally corrupted people who desperately need Christ, the very people He commanded to go into the highways and byways to find, but that our salvation is inherent in submitting to it, then we can start to get back to the early Church's reality and life as a body of Christ living on this Earth. The perfection our literature tends to idolize should not become the measure of our own Christianity, or we will have none of the above, including Christ.

Friday, March 23, 2012

What Does Your Story Say?

One of the big discussions in Christian writing circles revolves around the topic of what Christian fiction should do. I've discussed that here a time or two. Recently on Mike Duran's blog, deCOMPOSE, he brings this up again by asking, "Why Christian Fiction Should NOT Provide Answers." Check it out when you're done here. Some interesting discussions ensued.

But the post caused me to think as people chimed in with their various points of view. So I thought it a good idea to dive in a little further and discuss in what ways a message drives fiction.

First, understand the purpose of the type of writing, and work within that. A romance story has a particular purpose, as does a science fiction story, as does a sermon. A sermon's purpose is to get a distinct message across in a manner that impacts the listener with "truth." A non-fiction book's purpose is to convey information that is perspective enlightening and beneficial for the reader to get, hopefully in an engaging manner, that will better their lives. Both of these types of writing make judicious use of illustrations, often in story format, that highlight and serve the truth and/or information being conveyed. When a reader picks up a book of sermons or a non-fiction book, it is generally because they believe the information presented there will help them. They read the book for the message, and expect the author of the book to speak directly to them.

In general, fiction's primary aim is to entertain. When your general fiction reader wants a novel, they are little concerned with whether it has a specific message. What they want is a great story that they can get lost in and will be satisfying to them as a reader. Note, this does not mean every fiction reader feels that way. There are those who feel entertainment is a waste of time, so if they don't feel they are getting a message out of their fiction, they will feel they've wasted time. It is one of the reasons that non-fiction sells so much better than fiction. The fiction reader that likes fiction with an overt message generally view entertainment as a secondary function of any book. In other words, they read fiction like they would non-fiction.

But that group is a small subset of the fiction readers. Most fiction readers, if they feel the author is pushing a "message" or to put it in more negative terms, "an agenda," will put the book down and walk away. Why? Because if they had wanted that, they would have bought a non-fiction book. And yet, does this mean fiction shouldn't have a message? Not if you listen to many writing books. And when it comes to Christian fiction, most will tend to have a message of some kind. So what makes the difference between an engaging story that delivers a theme and message that resonates with the reader as opposed to the reader feeling the message is an agenda hitting them over the head?

In fiction, the term most often used as to what the author is trying to create is the "suspension of disbelief." That is, we want the reader to become absorbed into the story, to get lost in the characters, to "live" in the world the author has created. But when the reader runs into something that doesn't make sense or pulls them back to the reality, they are reading a story and not living it. The effect breaks the suspension of disbelief in the same way it would if in a movie you saw a camera boom momentarily dip into the top of the screen. It reminds you that you are watching actors on a set, and it breaks you out of the story.

One of the ways an author can do this is when their message turns into an agenda. That is, instead of the message serving the primary purpose of entertaining the reader, it becomes a non-fiction book by the story becoming a giant illustration for the message. Like non-fiction, the reader feels the author is speaking directly to them, rather than the characters. When the message breaks into the story in an artificial, shoehorned feeling, breaking character motivations or circumstances or reality way, then it destroys the suspension of disbelief for the readers, and they are no longer in the story. At the point that happens, the message becomes an agenda.

When does that happen? Two ways. The least used anymore but most famous is the author interruption that used to be so common in stories, especially morality stories. So after telling the story, the narrator would say, "And so, the moral of this story is..." and then proceed to spell out what the reader should have come to believe or see from the story. The other way is doing the same thing, but through either the character (instead of a narrator) or through an obvious circumstance, like the "bad" guy getting his due.

For an example, allow me to use an old flash fiction I did a long time ago (currently in my Ethereal Worlds anthology). In the story, I had the main character come to the realization that what they were doing was killing the "unborn" children of an alien race, after a few scenes of attempting to defeat these aliens from taking what they had. In the future world I had created, abortion had long since been abandoned and was looked up by them as we currently look at slavery now. So I felt it natural at that point for the protagonist to realize he was doing something that went against his morals, and gave him motivation to stop fighting them and let them take back their children.

Well, I sent that into one magazine, and the basic message that came back was that they felt I had hit them over the head with a big anti-abortion message, and that the whole story was written to come to that point. Actually, it hadn't. I didn't know where the story was going to end when I started it, and when I got to that spot, that seemed his natural conclusion and thought. But what they were telling me is that it felt like I had intruded into the story and used the story not to entertain people, but to attempt to convince people that abortion was wrong. I was in effect, giving a sermon illustration, not telling a fiction story.

So before sending it to the next magazine, I simply took out the character's realization of that fact, and made him not want to kill them once he realized why they were so adamant in getting back their children, unborn though they be. The only real difference was that I no longer directly had the character bring out the specific conclusion. Yet the dots were still there that these unborn alien children were worth saving and not killing. But it would be easy for the "pro-choice" reader to interpret it differently at that point, as being respectful of the wishes of the aliens who felt it was important, and maybe those babies weren't the same as ours, since the babies obviously were not residing in a mother's womb specifically, but in a cloud of cosmic dust.

It is also true that the more controversial the topic, the more this will happen. If I had been talking about slavery, I doubt my more overt message would have raised as many hairs. If I had my character realize the were killing a sentient being, like some cosmic pet the aliens were protectors of, I doubt the editors would have felt they'd been hit over the head with an agenda. It wouldn't have taken them out of the story, they wouldn't feel that if the character had thought that, it would feel I was using the story to make a point. The more people who disagree with your character's thoughts on something, the more it will feel to them like the author is attempting to knock you out and drag you to their side of the argument.

It is for that reason the biggest topics that create a sense of agenda in a story are religion, politics, and culture/morals. Anytime those become overt as the underlying message in a story, that's when it will feel like an agenda to anyone who doesn't agree with it. It is one of the reasons why Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy bombed as the books went along. The first book, The Golden Compass, was a big hit. Pullman's atheistic beliefs, however were subtle in that volume and didn't rise to the level of being an agenda. But as the series went on, it became more and more overt, as the whole story was about the death of God. By the last book, it was clear that Pullman's ideology had become the reason for the story. The whole trilogy was a huge illustration about how God was irrelevant and not worth believing in, and a statement where society would one day be: godless.

So a theme or message transforms into an agenda once the reader picks up that the author's primary purpose is to convey a message to him or her. And once that happens, suspension of disbelief is destroyed. Then you'll either have an amen corner from the choir that likes the message, or a closing of the book from those who do not. And even a closing of the book from those who might agree, but didn't buy your book to hear you preach a message. The message and theme must remain inherent to the story. It must serve the story rather than the story serving it. Once that gets reversed, then you no longer have a novel, but a non-fiction book. Once the reader senses, "This author wants me to believe X because of this story," then it subverts the primary purpose for fiction: to entertain.

The answers can be there, but it has to be the reader that comes to drink from that well and sees them, rather than a fire hose spraying it over the pages.

At what point does a message evolve into an agenda for you?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Hero Game Ebook Now Available!

Yes! The sequel to Mind Game is now here. Here's the blurb:

Book 2 of the Virtual Chronicles - Being virtual superheroes gives Jeremy, Mickey, and Bridget all of the glory with none of the danger. Using Zori's virtual engine, the trio can become any number of superheroes to right the wrongs on Earth. But Jeremy hadn't counted on Lorian arriving in the Solar System, the brother of the alien Jeremy helped kill to save Zori. With revenge on Lorian's mind and the invasion of Earth in his plans, the super trio find the odds stacked against them. Earth's armies are defenseless before a virtual fleet they can't kill. The three superheroes are all that stand in the way of Lorian enslaving Earth before retaking Zori. It will take more than super powers to save Earth and Zori again.

The print version will be available in the future. I'll announce it here and on Facebook when it is ready. But it may be a month or so, depending on how sales of the ebook go.

You can buy it on Kindle, Nook, or from Smashwords in any format your reader needs. Go to my published page to get the links.

Be sure to read the first book, Mind Game, if you've not read that one yet. It is an exciting space opera adventure, and leads into this story. If these two books do well, I'll be prompted to write more in this series, as the possibilities are endless.