"I never read Christian fiction. It's predictable, sugar-coated, preachy, and poorly written!"This line quoted by Randy Alcorn begins the 2012 annual WORLD magazine summer book review article. Alcorn goes on to argue that it may have been true twenty years ago, but not now -- and proceeds to mention a number of novels he claims do not fit this model. Most notable is that the previous page in the same issue reviews three recent Alcorn novels which do fit the model -- actually, I only read the first, and it was so predictable, sugar-coated, preachy, and poorly written that I never bothered with the sequels. I did read a few of the novels Alcorn mentioned, and some of them were better than his own.
I can't say I really know what "sugar-coated" means in this context, but I like to think of it as a pejorative substitute for "polite" (no cusswords, no sex, and no approval of bad behavior). I don't mind polite fiction, and sometimes it's fun to predict a line (especially in a movie) before it comes out in the story, but preachy (by Christians and pagans alike, see for example my review of Crichton's Case of Need) is just plain tiresome.
My author friend has a limited education and is too young to have much life experience, but she apparently reads a lot of fiction and (I suppose) she imagines herself some kind of an expert, so my attempt at dialog went badly. She handed me three novels, which I suppose she meant to broaden my understanding of something or another. The discussion context was "Christian fantasy or sci-fi" but there is not much that can be credibly called Christian sci-fi: other than the C.S.Lewis space trilogy and my own Lazir I know of none; the Wikipedia article on the topic lists as sci-fi mostly stuff better described as fantasy (that is, contrary to credible science), but that may be a consequence of the modern detachment from true science in favor of fantasy. Anyway, these three novels are not sci-fi, and hardly qualify as fantasy. They are also not very Christian -- unless (for example) you consider a Mormon to be "Christian."
I did run across this interesting claim on the fan site TalkingAboutTolkien:
Tolkien does not see The Lord of the Rings as a "novel", but is rather a heroic "romance." ("novel" reflect [sic] reality; "romance" has nothing to do with reality and is based on the adventure and love stories of a remote realm.)This is a broader definition of "romance" than I normally use the term -- where boy meets girl (or rather girl meets boy, the order is significant), they fall in love, crisis happens and is resolved, they marry and live happily ever after -- but it is certainly consistent with it. All three of the novels here might qualify as romance in this broader definition, but only one of them in mine. Curiously, my author friend's own novel qualifies in both senses, yet she categorically rejects the "romance" label, for no apparent reason other than distaste. Like I said, my attempt at dialog went badly. I'm not yet convinced it's all my fault, but it might be: I tend to get dogmatic when I'm right (particularly when there is a lot of independent public support for my position).
By the third chapter I knew that the lead character Tahn Dorn was headed for conversion to faith: he was not a bad Bad Guy (his "master" Samis was a Bad Bad Guy; such people never come to faith in Christian novels), but Tahn was a good Bad Guy -- they always get saved, because in Christian fiction everybody is saved primarily by their own good works, and then by the grace of God only incidentally. You need to understand that novelists are not particularly good theologians, because (as I pointed out in other contexts) those who can, do; those who cannot, write (or teach) about it. Anyway, Tahn's first act in the first chapter was a deed of virtue, and he was always conflicted by his obligation (imposed by his Bad Bad Guy master) to do Bad Things. Somewhere around the sixth or seventh chapter I also realized this is a "romance" (boy meets girl, they fall in love, crisis happens and is resolved, they marry and live happily ever after). They don't actually marry in this book, but it seems a foregone conclusion by the end. I probably would have started expecting it sooner if I'd realized author L.A.Kelly is female (no gender-specific first name is ever given, but the short bio facing the last page used female pronouns). The romance in Tahn is a rather smaller part of the story than in my friend's novel, but there seems to be no other well-defined genre to drop it into.
In her preface, Kelly admits it's not "historical" fiction, but does not tell us that it has a serious anachronism: her Christianity, which pervades the story and carries its intended moralizing (as clearly reported on the back cover) is definitely modern (certainly post-Enlightenment, probably late 20th century), with a complete and total aversion to anything supernatural other than the existence of an abstract deistic God who is somehow nonetheless loving and saves people out of their sins and sinful attitudes without reference to any personal Savior like Jesus. The whole idea of a God whose dominant attribute is "love" is quite recent, and can be found in the Bible only by taking verses out of context and altering the meanings of words. But it's important to the people who control the American church industry (see Relationshipism).
So I would guess this story counts as "speculative fiction," projecting
modern ideas onto a culture where "cool" hand-powered weapons were still
the only available means of combat. Because it pretends to be "Christian"
but in fact promotes a corruption of Biblical Christianity as perverse
and dangerous to its adherents as medieval Popism was in its day, I would
not ordinarily choose to read this story, nor recommend it to anybody I
For 96% of the book, the fearsome "feechies" that Grady and Floyd make their money faking never exist other than in the imaginations of the people. In the last chapter [spoiler alert] we are finally told that the feechies are a real people, racially distinct from "civilizers" (the rest of the citizens), but otherwise fully human. But for the place names and racial details, the whole story could have taken place in the author's native Georgia or some other pre-industrial location, perhaps two or three hundred years ago.
Although I am not entertained by stupidity -- Grady and Floyd are not stupid, but they make their living lying to and preying on the less clever of their countrymen, which is hardly honorable -- nevertheless the incidents (and the bad grammar) have a humorous down-home quality that makes it quite readable. However, I prefer a more rigorous defense of virtue.
A small part of what I found troubling in this novel is Grady's fixation on his parentage and wanting a mother. Perhaps orphans and adoptees feel that way -- not being in that category myself, I wouldn't know -- like Grady, I did as a child experience a home situation that was not overly affirmational, but I did not come out of it craving what I missed. That part of this story does not ring true to me. I understand that MBTI Feelers would (and probably do) feel otherwise, and I recognize that American Christian churches are run by and for the exclusive benefit of Feelers (Thinkers not welcome); if that is the extent of the "Christian" quality of this novel, that hardly makes it worth reading.
For the first 200 years of our country's existence, people were judged
on their own merits, mostly without regard to what demographic groups they
belonged to (except for the slaves and their progeny). Then the racist
tradition of seeing people only by their group membership (originally ancestry,
now also social class) leaked out into all of society, so that now people
can get elected President (or not) solely by the color of their skin, or
their religious affiliation, or their apparent personal wealth. There's
a technical word for that kind of socialism, but it is so abhorrent to
me I can't even remember its name. The Charlatan's Boy is written
from, and encourages that insidious kind of racism, and I cannot recommend
it for that reason, nor do I intend to seek out the announced sequel.
From what I can gather from the internet, the Dragon King trilogy seems to have been Stephen Lawhead's first fiction. He also wrote Byzantium much later, which I read last year after seeing its review in Alcorn's article. Although he conflated some of the historical events it was based on, it was historical fiction, not fantasy, and not a bad read. On his own website, Lawhead says:
In the early days, I could write a book with little or no advance planning. My notes for an entire book would be on a scrap of paper. Nowadays, I like to plot things out a bit more -- probably because my books are getting more complex and relying more on historical research, which has to be right. So I've resorted not only to scribbled notes but also to whiteboards to keep locations, time sequences, and character names organized.This is consistent with my observation (see my May 7 and May 25 blog posts last month) that Reality is a much bigger challenge than fantasy. There were a number of places where the events magically worked the Good Guys out of their difficulties; in ordinary fiction this kind of legerdemain is reviled as deus ex machina, but in fantasy it seems to be the name of the game. "It's make-believe, you can do whatever you want, because who's to say it can't work?" The book helpfully included a map on page -2, but the cartographer must have been stoned on fantasy -- "It's make-believe, you can do whatever you want" -- resulting in numerous inconsistencies with the story, and even with its own inset.
I searched the internet in vain to discover Lawhead's religious preference. From this story I would guess him to be some generic kind of Christian, because he gathers (and apparently approved) religious ideas from several traditions -- including Mormon and NewAge pantheism. I was at first bothered by all the pagan gods in the story, but about halfway through he suddenly introduced a new improved nameless "god" (uncapitalized) which resembles the Christian God in several significant ways (but differs in other ways), and the hero converts to it. Although not "Christian" -- the God of the Bible has a name and a Son (Jesus Christ, who is nowhere mentioned in any "Christian" novels I have ever seen), and the Biblical God is much more evangelistic than Lawhead's clone -- the story was clearly written by a Christian. You can tell, because (like Tahn) the story has religious themes inextricable from the hero; when the pagans write fiction, they make all the religious characters into villains or idiots, or else avoid the topic altogether. Lawhead also sprinkles (unattributed) Scripture quotes about in the mouths of his characters. I once saw that also in a pagan novel, but probably because the author there didn't know where they came from; Lawhead obviously knows. On Alcorn's yardstick, I would rate this somewhere between one and three "P"s out of the four.
Lawhead is a guy, so his story is not saturated with romance. There
was a hint of it on the last page, like he intended to make the second
volume into a conventional romance, which is reason enough for me not to
read it. So I guess I will never know. Instead, I checked a "Christian
thriller" out of the library. At least it's not fantasy.
The dictionary definitions for "romance" and "fantasy" have a tremendous overlap, almost as if they are one and the same genre. In practice, however, this appears to be the case only with female authors. Men write of adventure and bravery and daring; women write of love (eventually) resolved in marriage. This is consistent in all the speculative fiction (which seems to be another name for fantasy, perhaps intended to evade the negative connotations inherent in the eye-candy quality thereof) that I have read this year. Tolkien may have thought of his masterpiece as "romance" but he's a guy, and the one and only tiny scene of love and marriage could be snipped out and only women would notice or miss it. There is no romance at all in the two guy-written books of these three, but in Tahn and most of the other books by female authors I have read this year, the romantic element pervades nearly every chapter; removing it would decimate the respective books (the one exception: Louise Penny's Still Life).
Speaking of eye-candy, one (female) writer (see my 13 March 5 blog post) said this about it:
That's one of the wonderful things about [fantasy] is that there are no guidelines, or like structures that you get stuck into, it's [fantasy], it's make-believe, you can do whatever you want, because who's to say it can't work?Of course the readers can say it can't work, and if they're guys, they do (by going elsewhere for their fiction, which actually happened to this writer's work). Women are more relational than truth-oriented, which I guess is why they write and read love-stories and fantasy. My author friend called it "the coolness factor" by which (I suppose) she meant that personal affirmation and the gratification of personal desires is more important than Reality. Among those personal desires is an attraction to beauty and revulsion against ugliness. This traction may be built into all of us, and in speculative fiction, all the Good Guys are handsome or beautiful (as the case may be), and all the villains (and everything they touch) are ugly. The real world, stained as it is by sin, is otherwise -- Grady in Charlatan was a notable exception: the moralistic message of the story seems to have been to affirm ugly people. You can tell that the Bible is not fiction, because it does not submit to the temptation to equate physical attraction with virtue (Jesus, the ultimate Good Guy, "had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him," but the Biblical Satan is an "angel of light"). Fantasy is not constrained by reality, so it's easier to write (see Lawhead quote above). It's make-believe, you can do whatever you want, because who's to say it can't work? God said it can't work. If it worked, that's how the real world would be. It's make-believe because it doesn't work. IMHO
That leads me to the observation that "Christian fantasy" is a self-contradiction. Fantasy, by its very nature, is contrary to reality; Christianity is in its very nature the essence of Reality. "Christian fantasy" is like "white darkness" or "hot ice." But (to play the Devil's advocate) perhaps fantasy might be a good medium for conveying Christian Truth? I suspect Tolkien and C.S.Lewis thought so of their fiction, and maybe that's why (see quote above) neither of them called their own work "fantasy." It seems to me that Tolkien was the master of the art, and all his successors are but pale imitations, dim candles casting their own shadows in the brilliant radiance of Lord of the Rings. They have all succumbed to the Temptation in the Garden, "You shall be as gods," not merely knowing, but creating good and evil. It's make-believe, you can do whatever you want, because who's to say it can't work? The fruit from that Tree has an intoxicating flavor. I have known it myself.
But even from the pen of the masters, the nature of fiction is that it is fiction, that is, contrary to reality. If the author admits that some of it is a lie (fiction), who's to say that other parts are not fiction? Satan himself is the father of all lies, so he also writes (and commissions) fantasy. Which is the Lie, and which is the Truth? The atheists use the fact that there is no Santa Claus flying through the sky on Christmas Eve, and no Easter Bunny and no Tooth Fairy, to prove that there is also no Jesus Christ. An important part of truth is that it is consistent, and conversely, the Lie is inconsistent (see my "BS Detector"); because fantasy is inconsistent and (at least in part) false, who's to say that it's not all false? How can you get "truth" from falsehood? Jesus told parables as a vehicle for conveying his Truth, but we have no evidence that any of his stories were in any way fabrications or false -- indeed, at least one of them we know from independent sources to be historically accurate. The Bible says it is impossible for God to lie; what happens to the deity of Jesus Christ if he tells untrue stories?
The most disappointing insight from reading these three novels is that I cannot engage my friend: there's nobody to bounce the ideas off, so to correct any errors that might linger in my analysis. sigh
Rev. 2013 July 9