Tag Archives: Christian fiction

What’s The Point?

From time to time I read on different writers’ sites that the main thing a novel should accomplish is to entertain.

The main thing? I don’t agree.

Think about it. Dirty jokes are entertaining. Is that as high as a fiction writer should aim? A Christian fiction writer?

Don’t get me wrong. I believe stories should entertain. If they don’t, few people will read them.

But I think entertainment is not the function of fiction. I think communication is the function of fiction.

That Christian fiction has been labeled as “preachy” by many tends to scare off writers from trying to say something important through story, but I think it should instead scare us into learning how to say what we want to say in an engaging way that uses story rather than fights against it.

As I see it, this approach is similar to the approach God wants believers to take in all of life. My real point and purpose for existing is to give God glory.

But what does that look like? If I go out to the busy intersection a couple blocks away and start shouting out truths about God, will that glorify Him? Maybe.

I tend to think, however, that a more effective way is to love those God puts in my everyday path. The harried mom I might run into at a soccer game. A distraught co-worker who found out his wife has cancer. A disabled gentleman I might sit next to in church.

There are lots of people God puts in front of me, and when I give them a cup of cold water, the act is as if I am giving that kindness to Christ. Does this not glorify God?

But back to writing—it’s a unique profession. Writers have the privilege of telling others what we think by putting words down for people to read at their leisure.

Two things, I think, make writing compelling. First, if the writer has something important to say. Second, if he says it in an interesting way.

Some people don’t think Christians have anything important to say. Is that true? Do we see the world through our $200 designer sunglasses instead of looking wide-eyed at the stark realities the rest of the world sees?

You might be surprised to learn that I do believe Christians have encumbered vision—we see through a glass darkly. The problem is, all those wide-eyed others are actually blind, seeing without seeing, knowing without understanding.

Enter the Christian writer. We have the chance to write about life in a way that opens up reality. We are not limited to the mundane or to the impoverished human coping strategies when we stare in the face of our damaged world. We have more to say than the unbelieving, not less.

Unless, of course, we only aim to entertain.

Reposted from A Christian Worldview of Fiction, August 17, 2010.

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Symbolism, Part 3 – Symbols in Christian Fiction, continued

Because Western culture is becoming unhinged from its past, particularly it’s Christian heritage, should Christian writers eschew the use of Biblical symbols and allusions? That, of course, is one option. In place of a lamb, a vine, a staff, any use of symbols or allusions would be connected to contemporary images, sans Christianity—9/11, Pearl Harbor, “I have a dream”; or a flower, a dolphin, a crystal.

The Ten Commandments

Another approach would be to use only the Biblical symbols and/or allusions that would be familiar to the majority—parting the Red Sea, eating the apple, killing the giant; or a manger, a cross, a stone tablet of the Decalogue.

A third option is to dispense with symbols and allusions and concentrate on story—write to entertain, to provide a few moments of escapism. I think of this as the Nancy Drew approach to fiction, and I don’t mean that in an insulting way. Many a reader (myself included) got hooked on stories via Nancy Drew.

The fourth way of handling Biblical symbols and/or allusions is to search for ones that are central to the story — not in some superficial way, but in a thoughtful way that causes me as a writer to dig to understand what God is saying through His Word, first and foremost to me. It is as I allow Scripture to influence and affect me that I become passionate about sharing that insight and understanding I’m gaining.

If I choose this last route, it is with the understanding that I might be the only one who “gets” the symbols I am including. But the thing about symbols, they sort of become like buried treasure. Once readers get a whiff that something’s there to be found, they start unearthing all kinds of things.

So it seems to me, one part of including symbols is to tip your hand, ever so slightly. Like beginning your novel with a line like “Call me Ishmael.”

By employing Biblical symbols or allusions in this way, is an author talking in a hidden language that will fail to reach the intended audience?

That’s a tough question. I’ll rely on my usual definitive answer—yes and no. 😉

I really do think reading can be equated to a treasure hunt, so part of the author’s job is to let the readers know there is treasure to be had. If you’ve ever hidden Easter eggs, for example, you know that it’s important to put some in the easiest places so the youngest ones can find them while hiding others in more challenging places for the older ones. So with symbols.

Finally, the symbols in the Bible were used so ordinary people would more easily grasp spiritual truth — the concrete illustrating the abstract. That fewer of us live in an agrarian society perhaps clouds some of the symbolism, but in this communication era, though we may never have tilled a vine, for instance, what is involved in that process isn’t foreign to us. In other words, I think the symbols used in the Bible translate pretty well to our culture and can still communicate those spiritual truths.

If an author chooses instead to use less well-known symbols, he should aim for clarity. This must be achieved without spelling out what symbols stand for. So I suppose the logical thing to discuss next time is technique in employing symbols.

Originally posted as part of a series on symbolism at A Christian Worldview of Fiction

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Symbolism, Part 2 – Symbols in Christian Fiction

Christian fiction writers are often accused of being preachy, but in fact, secular authors also routinely write for the purpose of communicating some message about which they are passionate.

So why do Christians alone get tagged with the preachy label?

I think one reason is the familiarity with Christianity in the western culture. The western world has become, if you will, a Christianized culture. Not that this familiarity has resulted in the embracing of Christianity. Just the opposite. It’s as if western societies, instead, have been inoculated against Christianity by repeated exposure, because, as you know, “familiarity breeds contempt.”

What does this have to do with symbolism and the preachy label? I’m postulating that this Christianization allows for ready identification of Christian symbols and rejection without contemplation of the ideas behind them.

What’s a writer to do?

One possibility is to avoid using Christian symbols. Some writers make religion or faith the centerpiece of their stories, thus avoiding the dangers of symbolism.

For the fantasy writer, this solution doesn’t offer much. In a struggle between good and evil, how does one represent God without being transparent, without using a symbol that makes the Christianized skeptic roll his eyes and go, Here comes the evangelism pitch.

CS Lewis did a masterful job in choosing a lion to represent God—one reason his fantasy series still resonates. Not that Lewis came up with the idea on his own. Scripture calls God the Lion of Judah, and certainly Lewis drew upon that image.

Perhaps that’s the secret—choosing symbols that are lesser known, not so easily identified as symbols. Ones that require contemplation first by the author himself.

Interestingly, our culture is no longer as Biblically literate as it once was, which may explain why some Christians choose the symbols they do.

“Call me Ishmael” was the opening line of Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick. With those words Melville announced that his story was more than just a tale about whaling.

How so? Because the name created an allusion to a familiar Biblical story. As did the name for Melville’s protagonist—Ahab. As did the White Whale antagonist.

Back in 1851 London, Melville’s readers would have been familiar with the stories about Abraham and his disinherited son Ishmael, evil king Ahab and his conflicts with God’s prophet, Job and leviathan, Jonah and the whale God used to chastise him.

Granted, rather than symbolizing, the names allude to these Biblical accounts, but they can serve my purpose.

There was a time in Western culture that the Bible was well know. The average person was familiar with Gideon, Joash, and Festus. Mention of manna, a burning bush, a lamb caught in a thicket, brought to mind whole stories and the truth contained within.

Times have changed. Through a complex set of circumstances, we now find ourselves in a society—with the exception of a core group of Christians—that is nearly illiterate when it comes to the Bible.

My guess is, what people do know is, Jesus born in a stable and dying on a cross. Adam and Eve eating fruit in the garden. David killing a giant. Moses parting the Red Sea. Ben Hur racing his chariot. (I did say there was near illiteracy, remember. 😉 )

Seriously, the average reader will no longer immediately recognize Biblical allusions or Biblical symbols. I am assigning no blame, just stating a fact. A pertinent fact for writers because our job is to communicate.

So what do we do if the reading public no longer recognizes Biblical allusions or symbols? Perhaps we rely on the core group of symbols and stories the audience does recognize.

And inoculation sets in.

Inoculation, when what we need to generate is contemplation. Meditation. Thoughtful self-scrutiny. Worship.

I’m not trying to be mystical about this. I really do believe that the best fiction is the kind that makes us think and rethink and days later remember and talk over what we read with someone else.

Producing stories that rework the same ground over and over will not accomplish this.

Does that mean Christian writers should no longer look to the Bible as a source for symbols and allusions that will communicate the ideas we wish? I think that question is worthy of further exploration another day.

Originally posted as part of a series on symbolism at A Christian Worldview of Fiction

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