Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Writing "Christian" without writing "CHRISTIAN!!!": Symbolism and the Christian Walk

Hello bloggy friends,

First of all, if I know anything, you are probably wondering what I mean by that title.  We'll get there, I promise. :)
       As some of you have probably noticed, right now there is a big subject going around the blogosphere that has really brought up arguments on writing “Christian Fiction”… the topic has been known mainly as “Why Christian Fiction Doesn’t Work”, and as it is, I’ve already written two blog posts on the subject myself.

            What I find most interesting about this subject is how controversial it is.  One person believes one thing, another person believes another thing, and everyone wants their side of the story to be heard so they all start debating the point.  No outright fights, of course… we are all too civilized for that. J  But every one of us, me included, has entered the debate at one point or another to try and make a statement on our beliefs concerning the subject.

            Now, let me make something crystal clear: THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH ENTERING THIS DEBATE!!!  In fact, I find it admirable.  I see nothing wrong with writers – especially Christian writers – defending their writing and their belief systems.  And besides, this blog post was not written to be condescending, or to point fingers.  What was stated above was merely an interesting observation I had made that I wished to point out. :D

            With that said, however, I would like to continue the discussion going on here at the P&P on why I think “Christian Fiction”, as it is being defined in today’s world, doesn’t work… or actually, why it often isn’t working now.  This isn’t a discussion about why it never works, because goodness knows, I’ve read some pretty AWESOME books in the Christian Speculative Genres, and I don't plan to stop reading those genres anytime soon… but then again, I’ve also read some pretty uninteresting and mediocre books in those genres as well.  And that’s when you have to stop and ask yourself why those books aren’t working?  Why are they falling flat?

            First of all, one must ask oneself, what exactly is Christian Fiction?  The way we often define it in today’s world, Christian Fiction is fiction being written from a Christian World View.  Ok, ok... I get that, no problem.  For many writers, this means that Christian elements should be obvious – sometimes blatantly so (sometimes even right smack up in your face) – within the writing and story itself.  It is my experience that in some cases, Christian writers try to make their writing appear Christian with the use of prayer within the story, a single creator entity that usually represents God, belief systems similar to modern day Christianity, and even the use of a sacrificial someone that usually represents Christ... symbols within the story referring towards the Christian belief.

            Now, there is nothing wrong with the use of these symbolic elements.  Where we go wrong, I believe, is when we start to believe that the use of these elements alone is what makes a book “Christian”.  But the truth of the matter is that these symbolic elements, when placed in a story without conviction and the leading of the Holy Spirit, don’t reveal truth, but cloud it instead. 

            For instance, prayer alone, without conviction, is useless… it’s like repeating random words over and over again, but never meaning them, or perhaps never even knowing what it is you’re saying.  Even Christianity itself is meaningless without the conviction of what it stands for and what we believe in – truly believe in – as Christ’s followers.  The truth behind what we stand for, what we believe, and what that in itself represents, is what gives purpose to the word.

            I mean, no one can try to force God into a story.  God was not meant to be shoved in a box, or into a story… He can’t be controlled just because someone wants him to be.  And Just because the symbolism is used, doesn’t mean that the truth is evident, or that it’s even there.  Without the conviction and passion for Christ that should be evident in such symbolism because of the conviction in the story’s writer, the whole story will fall flat.  It’s as simple as that.

            The real truth of the matter is that it all comes down to a person’s walk with Christ.  As Christians, our love for God and His Truth should be evident in everything we write, and not just because we use symbols that are pertinent to the Christian faith.  It should be that even if we took those symbols out of our stories completely – even if our stories were never stamped with a “Christian” label, and even if we weren't even trying to write the book from a Christian perspective – elements of Christ would still be evident to our readers, and witness to the fact that we are Lovers and Followers of Christ.  

            Yes, I said even if those symbols were taken out of our stories completely.  I meant it too.

            If an artist’s walk with God is strong, it will be visible in her painting no matter what that painting is.  If a singer’s walk with God is strong, it will be heard in her song and her choice of songs.  And if a writer’s walk with God is strong, it will be read in her stories... with or without the symbolism that is so visible in so many Christian Fiction stories of today.

            One of my favorite quotes ever on this subject was written by C.S. Lewis.  He said, “What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christian’s on other subjects – with their Christianity latent.

            You might think this is an interesting quote coming from the man who basically wrote the definition on what modern Christian Speculative Fiction is.  After all, he is most famous for his creation of The Chronicles of Narnia, children’s fantasy books that not only took over the market when they were first released in the 1950’s, but that are continuing to do so now.

            However, I want you to take a moment and think about the Chronicles of Narnia.  Oh, Lewis used the symbolism… or at least some of it.  But in truth, his books never seemed to scream at the reader, “I am Christian fantasy!  I have an important Christian message that you must listen to!” as I’ve seen other books under the Christian Fantasy label do.  They aren’t blatant about their message.  In fact, I only remember two points in the book that actually referenced prayer at all – the first in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader when Lucy called to Aslan while they were lost in Dark Island, and the second in The Last Battle when Tirrian called out to Aslan to send him Narnia’s Helpers from beyond the end of the world.  And those instances only lasted a few seconds.  And the two biggest symbolic events referencing Christianity within the entire series are when Alsan sacrificed himself for Edmund’s sake in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, and in The Last Battle when the world ended.

            In truth, many kids don’t even pay attention to the symbolism to begin with – at least not the first time around.  They read Lewis’ books because they are fun to read, never mind the fact that the author wrote them from a Christian perspective.

            No.  C.S. Lewis originally wrote his books as a fairy tale, and the symbolism just sort of fell into place.    I read once in an article by Douglass Gresham, Lewis’ step son, that Lewis wasn’t even aware of Aslan’s presence in the story until the great lion just showed up; apparently Lewis had been dreaming about lions a lot at the time, and from those dreams sprung the figure of Aslan.  And, as some of you might care to recall, Lewis’ books weren’t originally labeled as Christian Speculative Fiction, and that wasn’t necessarily their original market either.

            For that matter, Tolkien’s famous trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, was never actually meant to be allegorical from the author’s own confession.  And yet just look at all the Christian symbolism within his books! 

            The choices within the story don’t have to be cut-and-dried.  The symbolism doesn’t have to be blatant.  It never had to be.

            The truth is that it shouldn’t matter what the story is, or how it is written, or what it is labeled as.  If the author’s walk with Christ is where it should be, the story itself will witness to the reader.   If the author’s walk with Christ is where it should be, the symbolism will fall into place unintentionally as it is inspired by God and the Holy Spirit, and not because the writer feels the need to use symbolism in order to get his or her point across.  If the story is inspired and led by God, then it won’t fall flat, the symbolism won’t feel forced, and God won’t be shoved into a box simply so that the story can be labeled “Christian”.  It won’t matter if the book is in the Christian market or in the Secular market, because if the story is truly inspired by God, it will witness to its readers of the author’s walk with Christ and the Truth of God’s love without being blatant and without the aid of a Christian label… much as Lewis’ and Tolkien’s books did.

            Because when we are walking straight with God, we don’t have to be intentional or right… we simply have to write.  God does the rest.

(Just a heads up to you guys, I'm working on another post on the subject of World Building and Character Choices within Christian Spec-fic. J  Hope to see you there!)


David N Alderman said...

Wonderful post! It's strange that you're posting about this content at the same time I've been posting along the same lines at my blog as well. That's great though, because like you said, I think it's okay to voice our opinions about this and get some great discussion going in regards to Christianity and speculative fiction.

I love the point you make about writing fiction and just letting the symbolism fall into place. That's what I did with my current series. It felt natural, and I felt good as a writer because none of it felt forced.

Out of curiosity, have you ever checked out Brent Weeks' Night Angel trilogy? Those are fantasy/assassin books, but my friend did an audio interview with Brent Weeks and found out that he is a Christian himself. Looking back at the books in the trilogy, you can see the symbolism and Christian themes dispersed throughout the books. But you'd never notice that unless someone told you ahead of time because he wrote the story and things fell into place.

I think it all goes back to 'write what you know'. If we as Christians just set out to write a great story, our own faith will shine through the pages. It won't be forced. It won't look like we're trying to cram Christianity down anyone's throat.

Keep up the great posts because more like this need to be shouted from the rooftops. ;)

Writer4Christ said...

This is very encouraging!
I have a question: is "preachyness" what we call a book in which a character in the book explaining everything about Christianity as if teaching the simpleness of how to drive a car? Is a book still preachy when there isn't much said on the matter of Christ's sacrifice, but when there is, it shines much more simply than the single paragraph explaining everything and then dropping the subject?
I don't want to be pushy in my stories towards Christianity, but there's no way around it because of the story. I'm going to work doubly hard not to make the sacrifice mirror the Bible in fantasy interpretation(like "Ryann Watters and the Shield of Faith" did for example). But I hope that the story will move Christians to want a closer relationship with God, and instead of making the thirst for a perfect boyfriend worse for unbelievers, I hope they begin to know that their thirst for a "perfect boyfriend" is really a thirst for God.

Philip Nelson said...

Nichole, I don't have much to say, other than that I agree. :)

Star-Dreamer said...
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Star-Dreamer said...

David: I have never read that series, but I know what you mean. :) I've seen it in books before. Just recently I finished reading the book "Divergent". It was absolutely Excellent with very minimal reference to God and Christianity, yet the symbolism and such were there. Then, in the credits at the end of the book, the first person that the author thanks is God and his Son. Amazing... it was published by a secular press too.

In the first draft of Song of the Daystar, I tried to force the symbolism. That was an epically BAD idea...

With this new draft, I'm just writing, and I'm finding out that the symbolism is falling into place all on its own with very little effort whatsoever.

I also agree with you on "write what you know". That's exactly right. We don't have to force it to show others that we are "christian"... if we are truly christian and love God the way we should, our stories will be evidence of our walk.

It's like the song goes:

"And they'll know we are Christians by our love,
by our love,
And they'll know we are Christians by our love."


Star-Dreamer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Star-Dreamer said...

Writer4Christ: I think "preachy" has a slightly different meaning for each reader. However, I will try to explain it to the best of my abilities. :)

As writers most of us know that our stories have a message, a certain theme that we are trying to get across. Preachy writing will take that theme or message and put it right smack up in the reader's face...

For an extreme example, let's say that my book is all about trying to win people over to Christ (ok, so it is in a way, but let's take it up a notch, make it much more drastic...)

If I went preachy with this message, my characters would constantly be reminded by other characters (or else be constantly REMINDING other characters) that they are not saved and are going to burn in hell unless they get saved, that they are going to die, etc, etc...

As Christians, yes, we know that is the message that we are ultimately trying to spread, though not quite that way. First of all, we know that its really the love of God and the understanding of His love for us and his sacrifice that should turn a person to him, not just the threat of hell. And second, it's been proven from history that people who stand on soap-boxes shouting in other people's faces that the end is near, etc, etc... are thought of as Crazy.

Crazy and preachy.

We need to think of our writing as if we are pastors. We, as christian writers, are trying to reach the world for Christ, but I believe it's wrong for us to try to scare off non-believers in doing so. We don't want to screech our beliefs in their faces... we want to reach out in love and SHOW them what God can do and what He wants for them.

I don't think it's terribly wrong for the sacrifice to mirror the bible in fantasy interpretation (though I myself am also trying hard not to let my story go there...) but it depends on the audience you are trying to reach. For a christian audience, that view of the sacrifice may be fine, but for a secular one, it screams preachy... they think they've heard it all before and that you're just trying to shove it in their faces. (I'm not saying it's always like this, but I've seen it more often than not.)

First off, know you're audience. If you're aiming more secular, be more subtle with the symbolism that refers to christian themes. If you are going more Christian, you don't have to be quite as subtle. If you are aiming for both, try for a happy mix between subtle and visually Christian. C.S. Lewis' Narnia books, and his Space Trilogy are probably the best examples I know of that you can get for that kind of mix. :)

I hope this helps. If you still have questions, feel free to ask them. I'm not sure how well I can answer them, but I will definitely try. ^_^


Laura Elizabeth said...

Hi! I've tagged you on my blog (lauraeandrews.blogspot.com). You can either do a tag post on your own blog, or just answer the questions in a comment on mine :)