To Steal, Perchance to Tithe
Monday, December 28, 2009
Sometimes art imitates life, but sometimes it’s the other way around. Those of you who have already read Lost Mission may remember Tucker Rue, the founder of a storefront mission in a poor Southern California barrio. Tucker is concerned about the American church's tithing problem, and I think he’s got good reason to be worried. A survey by the Barna Group famously determined that only 6 percent of Americans who called themselves “born again Christians” gave 10 percent or more of their income to churches and charities during the recession of 2002. (For more on stingy people who claim to follow Jesus, see Ron Sider’s 1977 classic, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.) I haven’t seen statistics on what the current recession has done to Christian giving, but this is an age old problem, which surely will remain with us until the end of days. In Lost Mission, Tucker Rue decides to resolve it by stealing from rich Christians to give to the poor.
A missionary who steals to help the poor . . . does that shock you?
That was certainly my intention when I wrote the Tucker Rue character. In Flannery O'Conner's classic book on writing Christian fiction, Mystery and Manners, she said a novelist must sometimes use “violent literary means to get his vision across to a hostile audience, and the images and actions he creates may seem distorted and exaggerated.” Following that strategy I invented Tucker Rue as a wild exaggeration, a larger-than-life example of the bad mistake we Christians often make by trying to solve spiritual problems with earthly strategies. But a Christian minister who steals from those who will not tithe . . . even with O’Connor’s advice in mind I wondered if readers would consider it too outrageous.
Now it turns out Tucker Rue may not have been violent enough, or distorted or exaggerated or outrageous enough, because believe it or not, there’s a Christian minister in the real world who is advocating much the same approach. Check it out.
At first I watched that video and marveled that a vicar would seriously suggest shoplifting for the poor, but after giving it some thought I decided there isn’t much difference between that and hoarding God’s blessings for myself. In Matthew 25, Jesus makes it crystal clear that God has blessed me so I can bless the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the sick and the prisoner. Jesus says to the extent that I give to needy people I give to God, and to the extent that I withhold blessings from them, I withhold from God.
With countless blessings in my life, as I consider year-end giving during this final week of 2009, that thought really hit home.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 6:55 AM
Hope During Advent
Monday, December 21, 2009
Feelings of loss and loneliness tend to well up in me at this time of year, which is ironic. For a Christian, next to Easter this should be the most joyous season. But I find my thoughts straying back to Christmas past, and longer dinner tables flanked by laughing loved ones, now absent.
Something a friend said to me today reminded me of a TV show about D-day I once saw. There were interviews with old veterans who had survived that terrible slaughter, interspaced with film clips shot in the midst of battle. One old man described being on the beach, taking shelter from deadly machine gun fire behind a tiny obstruction. Another soldier beside him began to crack up. The old man in the interview said, “I just told him, ‘Think positive, man,’ and we kept going.”
The remarkable courage of that statement has always stayed with me. In the end, it really is that simple. You think positive, and keep going. And in a Christian’s case of course, thinking positive is thinking Jesus. I am so grateful for the hope found in the manger, and in the empty tomb.
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me — put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8-9)
Happy birthday Jesus!
Posted byAthol Dickson at 7:26 AM
Labels: The Jesus Way
Peace During Advent
Friday, December 4, 2009
During the Advent season I think about the angels’ announcement to the shepherds tending their flocks in Luke 2:13-14 “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” These angels aren’t talking about some cheap, bumper sticker kind of peace. Real peace isn’t about us visualizing anything; it’s a gift from God. In John 14:27 Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
Notice Jesus contrasts his gift of peace with a troubled heart and fear. In Philippians 4:6&7 Paul does the same: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” I’ve learned that peace, not courage, is the opposite of fear. Brave people can act in spite of fear, but our hearts cannot contain both fear and peace.
One day last spring, when I went to the bathroom my urine was bright red with blood. The doctor said it could be cancer of the kidneys, liver, or prostate, or else a fourth undetermined cause. So the odds were three-to-one that it was cancer. He also said usually by the time one has bloody urine it’s pretty far along so my chances would not be good. Then he said we wouldn’t know until he some tests were done, so in the meantime I shouldn’t worry.
Being of little faith, I ignored his advice. I was afraid. Since God obviously knew that already, I thought I might as well admit it. So as Paul said, by prayer and petition I asked God to help me past my fear so I could desire His will with thanksgiving, even if it meant a painful death in my near future. And being afraid, I prayed the prayer in Mark 9:24 where a desperate man cries out to Jesus, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
I had to wait two weeks for the test results, two weeks knowing it was likely I had advanced cancer. But what a wonderful two weeks that was! I learned the Lord will always answer a prayer for faith with “Yes!” even in the valley of the shadow of death. He answered by filling my mind with an eagerness for heaven I had never felt before. I watched the sun set over the Pacific, and as beautiful as that sunset was, instead of worrying about cancer I couldn’t stop thinking that sunsets would be a million times more beautiful in heaven. And I can honestly say when the doctor told me it wasn’t cancer, my relief was bittersweet, because as Isaiah says in 57:1&2: “...the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil. Those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death.” And as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:55&57: "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? ...thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Rarely, but sometimes, things are so bad we can’t find the words to pray. I had such a day, many years ago. After fighting leukemia for months it was my father’s time to go. He was like a baby, lying naked on his bed, unable to talk, unable to control his bowels, bald from chemotherapy, going home in much the same way we come into life. It broke my heart to see my mother wiping his bottom, this man who had always been so strong. As I helped her by bringing in clean towels and carrying soiled towels out, I wasn’t praying. I was beyond all words. I was just too deep in grief, totally numb.
Then, as I crossed my parent’s bedroom with a filthy towel in my hand, all of a sudden the heavens opened up and God’s holy presence came shining down on me. I don’t care if this sounds like a cliché or not: it was like standing in a beam of light. God’s warming love flowed over me and all my grief and pain was simply washed away. Just for a moment there was no room for anything but glorious peace from head to toe. And I want to make this clear: in His infinite mercy, God’s peace came without any prayer on my part. In Romans 8:26 Paul makes a promise that was certainly true for me. He says, “...the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”
Although God's gift of total peace lasted only a few seconds, and then my grief returned as was only right and proper, after all these years that moment remains a rock solid promise. Even when I’m so overwhelmed I can’t find the words to beg for help, I’ve learned my loving Father will be here with me.
Another thing I’ve learned is this: Peace cannot be possessed. Imagine if you were so greedy for air that you took in breaths but refused to exhale. You’d end up gasping for the very thing you tried to hoard up for yourself. In Isaiah God speaks of “peace like a river,” and I think He chose that simile because peace cannot be stagnant; it must always flow. God expects you and me to be the riverbed through which His peace flows into the world.
Jesus tells us how to do this in his Sermon on the Mount. Turn the other cheek, he commands. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” That noun, peacemakers, includes an action verb. It means we who follow Jesus have a job to do. We are to obey Jesus, to make peace, to be His hands and feet to a fearful world. Our own peace is impossible if it doesn’t flow on through us to help fulfill the angel’s Advent promise of peace on earth, goodwill to men.
This doesn’t mean obedience to Jesus’ commands causes God to give us peace. It’s completely wrong to think any action on our part imposes some kind of reaction on God’s part. The Lord is the cause and we’re the effect, and it’s never, ever the other way around. It’s impossible to obtain the peace of Christ by trying to be good. Peace cannot be earned. Our obedience has no effect on God (except of course to please Him). God requires obedience for our sake, to turn our thoughts away from ourselves, away from our pain, our troubles, our fear, so we can be capable of accepting His gift of peace that transcends understanding.
As we cannot possess peace, so God’s peace must possess us. We must surrender ourselves to peace as we surrender ourselves to Christ. To the extent that we trust Him, we will receive peace, by grace, through faith and not through our good works.
I was reminded of that recently. As many of you know, I am a novelist. Last September, my eighth book was published. It was a disaster. Due to illness on the part of a key person, and a badly managed corporate restructuring, the publisher forgot to promote the novel. Normally they would send advance copies to several hundred influencers—newspapers, magazines, bloggers and so forth—but for the first time in my career, not one advance copy was mailed. Unbelievable as it sounds, they simply forgot. Bookstores stock novels based largely on the advance buzz in the press. Since there was no buzz, the stores bought only about a third of the usual number of copies. So, unless God wills otherwise, this novel is dead on arrival.
It means I’ve lost over a year’s worth of hard work. That’s how long it takes me to write a novel. And it’s not something I do in my spare time; it’s my full time job. So you can imagine how devastating this was. Since I’m far from perfect, I was furious at first, and then I was depressed. I lost a lot of sleep, and I felt like a failure. There was certainly no peace in my heart.
Then one night my pastor asked some men to pray for me, and in his own prayer the pastor spoke about the Lord’s book. Not my book. The Lord’s book. It was such a simple concept, it had escaped me, but that prayer reminded me that what I write is not my own. I write to serve my Savior. I write to spread His peace on earth, His goodwill to men. And so long as I surrender my life to God, no matter what the world may do there can be no such thing as failure. It’s really just that simple, because as it says in 1 John 5:3&4: “This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world....”
Here’s another delicious quote, from Psalm 85:10: “Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other.” As a writer, I think those words are particularly beautiful. Righteousness and peace kiss each other. As a follower of Jesus, I know the Psalmist speaks here about God’s righteousness, not mine. I can no more possess peace than I breathe without exhaling. To be at peace, I must surrender to it, be possessed by it, and pass it on. So I’m not dwelling in grief or anger about my last book anymore. On the contrary, I’m hard at work on another novel for the Lord, about a troubled man who finds peace in the end.
When you’re troubled and need to find peace, admit your fear and ask the Lord to help your unbelief. But if you are too overwhelmed to even think to ask, never fear; even then the miracle of peace is given to those who love the Lord. Just don’t try to possess God’s peace. Be possessed by it instead. Resist the temptation to turn it inward. Look for someone you can share it with, and the gift of peace that transcends understanding will surely flow through you like a river, no matter what your circumstances.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 6:45 PM
Labels: The Jesus Way
The More Things Change...
Friday, November 20, 2009
Things are changing fast in Book Land. Last month, the world’s largest Christian fiction publisher decided to convert one of its traditional imprints into a self-publishing division. This week, the world’s largest romance fiction publisher announced they have entered the self-publishing business, too. Never mind the troubling ethical questions and conflict of interest concerns that many have raised about established publishers choosing to blur the lines between traditional and self-publishing this way. That’s another blog. Today I’m interested in bigger trends.
Some people think we’re looking at a future filled with hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people putting out their own novels. Given this new thrust toward self-publishing, and the ease with which a manuscript can be uploaded to the Internet as an e-Book, why not? Any author who has ever done a book signing will tell you that everybody seems to think they are a writer. Now they can prove it without having to jump through all the traditional hoops of getting an agent, attracting an acquisitions editor and satisfying a publication board. Write it and post it. It’s just that simple!
Some people also think the Internet has changed everything when it comes to production and purchase in the arts. We used to be macro-consumers. Now that it is so easy to get “published,” we’re going to become micro-consumers. No more blockbuster novels. Everybody will be reading something different because there are so many different things to read.
The Internet, they say, has changed everything, and we published novelists had better get ready for hard times because there is a wave of words coming that will overwhelm us.
I don’t believe it for a second.
Take Hollywood for example. At the end of the day, after Johnny uploads his latest YouTube video creation, I think he still sits down to stream a blockbuster Hollywood production on Netflix, right along with a million other people every day. No matter how many Youtube videos get uploaded, I don’t think that’s going to change the fact that the blockbuster Hollywood production is much more fun. And if Johnny does watch someone else’s Youtube video, on what does he base that decision? On the fact that a whole lot of other people have already watched the same video, of course. Take away the view counter and Youtube would die of lack of interest. We don’t have millions of people watching millions of different videos. We have millions watching a few videos. All the other millions of videos are seen by the people who make them, their friends, and family. Sort of like home movies.
In exactly the same way, Johnny might upload his novel to some file sharing site, but for his own reading he’s still going to choose a Steven King title over some unknown person who wants $1.50 for a download from Scribd.
I’m thinking about general trends here, and of course there will always be a few people who swim upstream, but while the Internet allows us to produce stuff at a micro-level, but that doesn’t mean the vast majority of us want to consume stuff on that level. This is due to basic human nature. Human beings have a heard mentality, and no technology will ever can change that.
There’s so much proof. Anyone could start a “news” service like Matt Drudge’s. All the man does is post links to other people’s news stories. Countless bloggers have tried to do the same, and it’s safe to say many of them post the same news links, or more interesting links, but Drudge still gets 28,000,000 hits a day while all those others get maybe 50 to 5,000. Why do millions of people go to Drudge every day? Because millions of people go to Drudge.
People have a herd mentality. We always have. We always will.
We see a line; we get in it, whether we know why or not. It just seems easier, somehow. How many times have you seen this at a ticket booth? A couple of lines, one long, one short, both for the same thing? And what is your first instinct? If you are like most people your first instinct is obviously to get in the long line, because that’s why it’s longer in the first place. It takes extra thought to get in that short line, and it takes a little courage, because a little voice warns us that the longer line must be better. After all, everybody’s in it.
Since we’re wired to take the well trodden path our marketplace will always be driven by that instinct, which means sales will always pile up in a few places rather than being thinly spread all over the place. How many search engines are there? How many people use Google, versus all those others combined? We’ve even turned “google” into a verb. We might enjoy the fantasy that someone’s out there reading our blog or looking at our video, but when it comes time for us to do some reading and looking, the Internet hasn’t changed our herd mentality. On the contrary, the Internet enables it.
What will probably happen as traditional publishing slowly dies as some predict, is a corresponding period when it’s every author for himself, with a proliferation of websites like Scribd where you can market your wares. Then one site will rise to dominance, a la Google, Drudge, Amazon, Craig’s List, Youtube, and etc.. That dominant e-publishing site will include a download counter for each title. And just as we see on Youtube, the titles with the most downloads will attract the most downloads. Tipping point will remain a fundamental marketing dynamic. Buying patterns will continue to exist just as the do today. A few authors will rise to the top, and all the others will sink to the bottom. At the end of the day, fiction authors will be in much the same place as we were ten years ago, with a small pool of the luckiest or the most talented professionals selling 95% of the novels, and a few million others wannabes splitting the other 5%. There will always be a need for professional editing. PR and marketing will still be necessary. The dominant e-publishing website will eventually change their business model and start taking a percentage of sales, of course. And being very poor negotiators, I suspect we authors will still be lucky to retain our usual 5% to 15%. In the end, unless human nature changes, life as an author will remain essentially the same in spite of everything.
Piracy, on the other hand, could ruin everything for everyone, authors and readers alike, but that too is another blog.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:41 AM
Thoughts on Humility Against Despair
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
I chickened out last night at a weekly men’s discussion group at church. Rather than our usual Bible study, our pastor chose a chapter from Thomas Merton’s classic New Seeds of Contemplation. At first I was delighted, because as it happens I’ve kept a copy of Father Merton’s book on my bedside table for occasional inspiration for the last year or so. But then I saw the topic of our discussion would come from chapter 25, “Humility Against Despair.” While it’s a timely treatise for these difficult times, as we talked about Father Merton’s observations on the relationship between humility and despair, I found myself feeling more and more cowardly.
Father Merton begins that chapter with these words: “Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love.” As it happens, I disagree. But I wasn’t willing to say that, because I was afraid of having to explain why.
Later in the chapter I think Thomas Merton was right to point to humility as absolutely necessary for release from despair. I also agree some forms of despair are fueled by prideful self-pity. But I am not convinced by the father’s unqualified statements in the opening paragraphs of his chapter, where he also writes, “Despair is the ultimate development of a pride so great and so stiff-necked that it selects the absolute misery of damnation rather than accept happiness from the hands of God...”
Because I didn’t know my pastor planned to present this topic for discussion last night, I didn’t have time to psyche myself up to talk about it transparently. But today I decided it might help someone if I wrote about it openly, so here’s what I was too chicken to admit yesterday:
I know quite a lot about despair. I once suffered from it to the point of being sorely tempted to commit suicide.
The Bible tells us in many places all trials are beneficial for believers, even when they cause us grief. Here is some of what I learned from my particular trial...
Jesus, quoting the Hebrew scriptures, teaches us to “love your neighbor as yourself,” so in spite of Father Merton's phrasing, self-love itself is not the problem. One cannot love another without first having a healthy appreciation for the fact that the Creator of the universe considers us worthy of a deep and sacrificial love. Who are we to disagree with God on this?
But of course self-love can be taken to an unhealthy extreme, as all good human impulses can. For the sake of conversation I suppose it is convenient to select a word for that condition, but I wish Father Merton had chosen more carefully. In most English-speaking peoples' minds “despair” is synonymous with “depression” (it certainly seemed that way in last night’s discussion) and that’s where I find I can’t agree with the father, because there are several reasons for depression that have nothing to do with improperly conceived self-love.
According to this source (which I highly recommend) depression can be hereditary, or chemically induced, or the after effect of prolonged physical or emotional stress, or an involuntary reaction to a major change in life’s circumstances. Merton’s definition matches yet another of the usual suspects, something called “endogenous depression,” which psychologists believe is the result of a prolonged and deep-seated anger turned inward at oneself because it feels unsafe to direct it outward at the cause. In other words, there is a kind of depression which can be caused by clinging to unforgiveness.
I believe “unforgiveness” is a far better term than “despair” to describe this form of spiritual corruption, this “absolute extreme of self-love” Merton describes, because unforgiveness is the spiritual action undertaken (when the cause is spiritual), and despair is only the result.
But again, not all depression is the same. For me despair (or depression) came during a three-year period in my life when I suffered through a series of unrelenting personal betrayals, losses and grief. Each of those evils attacked me hard on the heels of another. In every case I had good reason to mourn.
There is nothing wrong with grief, of course. After all, “Jesus wept.” In this fallen world, it’s natural. But when one suffers through a Job-like period with life handing you one evil after another, if it lasts long enough, against your will it can change the way you think. That’s so important it bears repeating: against your will it can change the way you think.
This is an established medical fact. It is possible to become involuntarily addicted to a beneficial drug if circumstances require you to consume it long enough. In a similar way, depression or despair is sometimes caused by a long immersion in the grief and pain which is a natural and logical and proper emotional response to very bad events. If you have never suffered from severe depression and you don’t believe it’s possible to end up there against your will, ask a combat veteran. Ask an abused child.
So here is the question I would ask Thomas Merton if I could: should we tell a combat veteran or an abused child that they feel despair because they are insufficiently humble? And if we are not prepared to do that, who are we to decide to draw the line elsewhere, to say to anyone, “He and she have a legitimate reason to struggle with depression and despair, but you do not”?
Maybe a stronger faith, with its accompanying humility, would have kept me from the depression that led me to thoughts of suicide. But maybe not. Deeply faithful people become sick and it has nothing to do with a lack of humility. So was my depression a form of sickness, or was it sinful pride as Merton suggested? I can offer two evidences that Merton was wrong in my case.
First, when I thought of ending my life—and I did so many times over a period of several months—again and again I chose not to do it for one reason only: I knew it was against God’s will, and I knew it would break my wife’s heart. In other words, while Merton summarily dismisses all despair as “the absolute extreme of self-love,” I chose life in the midst of despair for the sake of outward focused love.
My second evidence is a guiltless conscience. Not once since that time have I sensed the Holy Spirit’s conviction in the matter, and while I am often disobedient, I am nonetheless very aware of God's displeasure when it comes.
I find great inspiration in Merton’s work and in his life-long example, or I wouldn’t keep his book so close at hand. And nobody gets it right all of the time, of course, so disagreement on one point is no reason to ignore a hundred other pearls of wisdom. Even in this chapter of New Seeds of Contemplation I agree with the good father to this extent: humility is indeed essential in the fight against despair.
In Christ’s case, only his infinite humility could have saved his sanity when he was driven by unrelenting evil to cry out with the despairing Psalmist, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” In my case, God’s beauty as revealed in His natural creation finally drew me up and out of despair. I could not have connected with God’s beauty if I had remained focused on myself, so that part of Merton’s premise is correct: in all humility I owe everything to God. There was no room for pride. I was utterly helpless; God had mercy on me, and I was rescued, plain and simple, just as I was rescued when I first surrendered myself to Him through Jesus, my Messiah.
The other men in the room touched on this final point last night and I was very glad, but I wish I had been brave enough to take it one step further, because this truth contains an important contradiction with Merton’s initial statements: God is under no obligation to rescue anyone, and whether He chooses to do so or not is not a function of human humility, therefore it is possible to be completely humble, and yet remain caught up in despair simply because it is the perfect will of God.
In other words, sometimes, despair is simply a test, like so many other forms of evil.
Some Christians are not rescued as I was. Some, like Paul with his famous thorn in the flesh, are left by the Divine within the fight. Indeed, Paul’s thorn was left in place precisely so he would not fall into self-love. So who are we to say depression can only exist because of self-love? Not only is that assertion judgmental in the sense Jesus hated, but once we take that step, we must be prepared to accept the same explanation for things like schizophrenia, or cancer.
I do believe—I know from personal experience—that humility is essential in recovering from depression and despair, I don’t think it follows that corrupt self-love is necessarily the cause of all despair, nor do I believe corrupt self-love is an essential characteristic of despair. Sometimes it is there, for sure. Maybe even most of the time; who knows? But to say as Father Merton did that “Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love,” is to do a grave disservice to those who continue to suffer from depression or despair, and yet who, like Job, resist the beguiling temptation of release that death would bring, solely because of their selfless obedience to a God they dearly love.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 5:53 PM
Labels: The Jesus Way
Monday, November 9, 2009
Interviewing novelists is an art form. Most radio interviews I've done have been pretty disappointing, because the person asking the questions clearly didn't understand fiction, and didn't have a clue about how to take us into interesting territory without giving away too much of a novel's plot. But Victor and Alicia Gentile at Kingdom Highlights are masters at doing exactly that, and they truly understand the purpose and meaning of literature.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 9:40 AM
The Trouble With Theme
Friday, November 6, 2009
“Right away, we divide into two camps,” I said, making two fists and putting one on the dinner table to my right, and the other on the table to my left. Lifting one fist I said, “Over here are authors who insist Christian novels have to kowtow to the most prudish people in the pews, and speak about the gospel so plainly it crosses the line into propaganda.” Lifting my other fist, I said, “But the authors over here think being authentic and relevant means we must show profanity and violence and sex realistically, and they’re willing to avoid all hint of Christianity rather than risk being seen as preachy.”
Nodding, my friend Regina zeroed right in on the problem. Pointing to one fist she said, “Too much truth.” Then she pointed to the other fist. “Too much grace.”
Regina knows her Bible. She knows you can never really have too much truth or too much grace. What she really meant was, not enough harmony.
People are like pendulums. We can’t seem to stop swinging from one extreme to the other. Sometimes this is good. Passion is important. But in addition to passion, all the finest things in God’s creation have a sense of harmony. It’s true in Regina’s world, where the best painters pay as much attention to the background, or “negative space,” as they do to the subject matter, or “positive space.” And it’s true in fiction, where the best writers devote attention to theme, style, setting, plot and characterization without giving any one of those fundamental elements too much emphasis, or too little. Everything works together, harmoniously.
When we swing so far in one direction that we ignore or oppose the other end of the spectrum, it’s a sure sign we are lazy. It’s easier out there on the ends. The gray areas in the middle require much more work. In those middle places we can’t thoughtlessly accept simple black and white ideas; we have to think about everything. This applies to writing, and it applies to Christianity itself.
It’s lazy writing to layer a theme onto a story superficially and it’s lazy to turn one’s back on theme for fear of overstatement. That’s why a good writer will wrestle with a theme, always aware of the dangers of going too far, and always aware it’s just as dangerous not to go far enough. Some wrestle with their theme up front; others let the theme develop as they write and then go back to wrestle with it later. Either way this is a lot of work, but it’s also the only way to write a novel that matters.
Similarly, it’s lazy writing to demand thoughtless compliance with rigid rules simply to avoid causing offense, and it’s just as lazy to break those same rules merely to appear relevant or authentic to the outside world. A good Christian novelist will offend even fellow Christians if there’s no better way to make a point that should be made. A good Christian novelist will also do the extra work it takes to write about the fallen world without contributing to the fall. Jesus ate with prostitutes and “sinners” but not once did he emulate them.
A long time ago I was advised by a Jewish agent and an unbelieving editor to add a stronger spiritual subtext to a plot, only to be told later by a Christian author that the novel was too preachy. More recently, another Christian author assured me that my upcoming allegorical novel about God’s love is a waste of time, because only people who already know God will understand the symbolism. (I could not help remembering that God is not mentioned in the book of Ester, nor does that book contain any commentary on the actions of the characters. Apparently God trusts readers, even if we don’t.)
These experiences are fairly typical of what I’ve found in several organizations where Christian authors discuss writing. We often talk about how to create sympathetic characters, or how to write a page-turner of a plot, but amazingly enough, we almost never discuss how to communicate a theme. When it comes up we tend to flee to separate corners, with those on one side saying, “You abandon the gospel!” and those on the other side saying, “You write sermons, not novels!” The finger pointing is easier than doing the work it takes to speak to readers deep down, between the lines. Although we are all in the business of writing about Christian ideas one way or another, theme is a touchy subject.
Oh, the irony!
Whether the genre is romance, speculative fiction, mystery/suspense, general fiction or chick lit, writing about Jesus means letting go of safe assumptions and easy shortcuts. It also means approaching every novel as if it’s the first one we ever wrote in order to encounter our stories in a middle place where life is gray and complicated, because that’s where true harmony is found. This is only natural, since that harmonious yet complicated place is also where Jesus lives. The apostle John tells us Jesus came “full of grace and truth.” Jesus never compromised on one for the sake of the other, and He calls us to live our lives the same way. Imagine the power and the glory if our novels did that, too.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 5:53 PM
How to Pray
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Feeling distant from the Lord? Today I received some practical advice on how to pray from my friend and pastor, Jay Grant, a man who routinely prays for miracles and receives them. Here in Jay's own words are his excellent suggestions for those of us who sometimes feel we're talking to the wall instead of having a conversation with God:
Posted byAthol Dickson at 5:57 PM
Labels: The Jesus Way
Monday, November 2, 2009
These beautiful, wise words came to me from a friend today. My friend didn't know for certain where to find the source in print, and although I tried to find confirmation of the author or a copy of the poem via Google, they were nowhere to be seen. But I believe the author would not object to finding it here. Anyone who understands this truth as well as the poet clearly does, would want the world to know by all means possible.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 6:35 PM
Labels: The Jesus Way
American Idol for Writers!
Sunday, October 18, 2009
Want to have some fun? Enjoy American Idol? Enjoy speculative fiction? In that case, you're in luck! My friend Jeff Gerke sent me a copy of the following press release this morning. I think it's a great idea. Check it out:
"Marcher Lord Select is American Idol meets book acquisitions," says publisher Jeff Gerke. "We're presenting upwards of 40 completed manuscripts and letting 'the people' decide which one should be published."
The contest will proceed in phases, Gerke explains, in each subsequent round of which the voters will receive larger glimpses of the competing manuscripts.
The first phase will consist of no more than the book's title, genre, length, a 20-word premise, and a 100-word back cover copy teaser blurb. Voters will cut the entries from 40 to 20 based on these items alone.
"We want to show authors that getting published involves more than simply writing a great novel," Gerke says. "There are marketing skills to be developed--and you've got to hook the reader with a good premise."
Following rounds will provide voters with a 1-page synopsis, the first 500 words of the book, the first 30 pages of the book, and, in the final round, the first 60 pages of the book.
The manuscript receiving the most votes in the final round will be published by Marcher Lord Press in its Spring 2010 release list.
No portion of any contestant's mss. will be posted online, as MLP works to preserve the non-publication status of all contestants and entries.
Participating entrants have been contacted personally by Marcher Lord Press and are included in Marcher Lord Select by invitation only.
"We're also running a secondary contest," Gerke says. "The 'premise contest' is for those authors who have completed a Christian speculative fiction manuscript that fits within MLP guidelines and who have submitted their proposals to me through the Marcher Lord Press acquisitions portal before October 29, 2009."
The premise contest will allow voters to select the books that sound the best based on a 20-word premise, a 100-word back cover copy teaser blurb, and (possibly) the first 500 words of the book.
The premise contest entrants receiving the top three vote totals will receive priority acquisitions reading by MLP publisher Jeff Gerke.
"It's a way for virtually everyone to play, even those folks who didn't receive an invitation to compete in the primary Marcher Lord Select contest."
The premise contest is open to anyone with a completed Christian speculative fiction manuscript that meets MLP guidelines for length, content, genre, worldview, audience, etc. To enter, authors must complete the acquisitions form found at the Marcher Lord Press site and supply all the components listed below on or before October 29, 2009.
Marcher Lord Select officially begins on November 1, 2009, and runs until completion in January or February 2010. All voting and discussions and Marcher Lord Select activities will take place at The Anomaly forums in the Marcher Lord Select subforum. Free registration is required.
"In order for this to work as we're envisioning," Gerke says, "we need lots and lots of voters. So even if you're not a fan of Christian science fiction or fantasy, I'm sure you love letting your voice be heard about what constitutes good Christian fiction. So come on out and join the fun!"
Marcher Lord Press is a Colorado Springs-based independent publisher producing Christian speculative fiction exclusively. MLP was launched in fall of 2008 and is privately owned. Contact: Jeff Gerke; http://www.marcherlordpress.com/.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 2:29 PM
Other People's Blogs
Friday, October 16, 2009
Posted byAthol Dickson at 7:32 AM
Lost Mission - Chapter One
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
By Athol Dickson
Published by Howard Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020
Lost Mission © 2009 Athol Dickson
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information, address Howard Subsidiary Rights Department, Simon & Schuster, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.
WordServe Literary Agency
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data TK
HOWARD and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Manufactured in TK
For information regarding special discounts for bulk purchases, please contact: Simon & Schuster Special Sales at 1-800-456-6798 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Edited by Nicci Jordan Hubert
Cover design by DesignWorks
Interior design by TK
This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of either the author or publisher.
The two angels arrived
at Sodom in the evening,
and Lot was sitting
in the gateway of the city.
When he saw them,
he got up to meet them
and bowed down
with his face
to the ground.
—The Book of Genesis
In the event of a suspicious find
those exposed should be re-vaccinated
and placed under medical supervision for 21 days . . .
The potential risk to public health is so great
that a contingency plan must be in place.
“Crypt Archaeology: an approach”
Institute of Field Archaeologists, Paper Number 3
La Día de los Reyes, 6 de Enero, 1767
Let us begin the story of La Misión de Santa Delores on the holy day of the three kings, in Italy, in Assisi. To commemorate his twentieth year among the Franciscan brothers, Fray Alejandro Tapia Valdez made a pilgrimage to his beloved San Francisco’s humble chapel, the Porziuncola. For more than a week the friar prayed before the chapel’s frescos, rarely ceasing for food or sleep, But despite his lengthy praises and petitions, despite his passionate devotion to Almighty God, Fray Alejandro was a pragmatic man. He did not believe the rumor, common in his day, that the frescos’ perfection was beyond the reach of human hands. As we shall see, in time the friar would reconsider.
The Franciscan stood five feet four inches tall, an average Spaniard’s height in the eighteenth century. He was broad and unattractive. Heavy whiskers lurked beneath the surface of his jaw, darkly threatening to burst forth. Fray Alejandro’s brow was large and loomed above the recess of his eyes as if it was a cliff eroded by the pounding of the sea and ready to crash down at any moment. The black fullness of his hair had been shaved at the crown, leaving only a circular fringe around the edges of his head. His nose, once aquiline and proud, had become a perpetual reminder of the violence that had flattened it at some time in the past.
For all its ugliness, Fray Alejandro’s visage could not mask the gentleness within. His crooked smile shed warmth upon his fellow man. His hands were ever ready with a touch to reassure or steady, or to simply grant the gift of human presence. When someone spoke, be they wise or not, he inclined his head and listened with his entire being, as if the speaker’s words had all the weight of holy writ. In his eyes was love.
Love does not defend against the sorrows of this world, of course. On the contrary, each day as Fray Alejandro knelt in prayer at the Porziuncola he became more deeply troubled. His imagination had recently been captured by strange stories of the heathen natives of the new world, isolated wretches with no knowledge of their Savior. This tragedy grew in Alejandro’s mind until he groaned aloud in sympathy for their unhappy souls. Other brothers kneeling on his left and right cast covert glances at him. Many thought his noisy prayers an uncouth intrusion, but caught up as he was in sacred agony, Alejandro did not notice.
Then came that holy day of the three kings, when in the midst of his entreaties for the pagans of New Spain, Fray Alejandro suddenly felt a painful heat as if his body was ablaze. In this, the first of his three burnings, Alejandro became faint. He heard a whisper saying, “Go and save my children.” The bells of Saint Mary of the Angels begin to peal, although it was later said the ropes had not been touched. As startled pigeons burst forth from the bell tower, Alejandro rose.
How like the Holy Father to command such a journey on that day of days! Without a backwards glance Fray Alejandro strode away from San Francisco’s little chapel as if following a star, determined to return at once to Hornachuelos, in Cordoba, there to seek permission from the abbot of the monastery of Santa Maria de los Angeles for a voyage to New Spain.
The abbot’s assent was quickly given, but Fray Alejandro spent many months waiting on the vast bureaucracy of King Carlos III to approve his passage. Still, while the wheels of government turn slowly, slowly they do turn.
Finally, in late May of the year 1767 the good friar stood at the bulwarks of a galleon in the West Indian Fleet, tossed by the Atlantic, quite ill, and protected from the frigid spray by nothing but his robe of coarse handmade cloth. In spite of the pitching deck, always Alejandro faced New Spain, far beyond the horizon. His short broad body seemed to strain against the wind and ocean waves with eagerness to be about his Father’s business.
But let us be more patient than the friar, for this is just the first of many journeys we shall follow as our story leads us back and forth through space and time. Indeed, the events Fray Alejandro has set in motion have their culmination far into the future. Therefore, leaving the Franciscan and his solitary ship, we cross many miles to reach a village known as Rincon de Dolores, high among the Sierra Madres of Jalisco, Mexico. And we fly further still, centuries ahead of Alejandro, to find ourselves in these, our modern times.
Accompanied by norteño music blaring from loudspeakers and by much celebratory honking of automobile horns, we observe the burning of a makeshift structure of twigs and sticks and painted cardboard, which seemed a more substantial thing once it was engulfed, as if the trembling flames were masons hard at work with red adobe. The people of the village of Rincon de Dolores were encouraged by the firmness of the fire. All the village cheered as the imitation barracks burned before them. They cheered, and with their jolly voices dared a pair of boys to stay in the inferno just a little longer.
There was much to enjoy on that Feast Day of Fray Alejandro—the floral garlands, the children in their antique costumes, the pinwheels spun by crackling fireworks, the somber procession of the saints along the avenida—but one citizen did not join the festivities.
Guadalupe Soledad Consuelo de la Garza trembled as she watched the flaming reenactment of the tragedy of La Misión de Santa Dolores. Who knew, but possibly this year the boys would stay too long within the flames? Who knew, but possibly this time the sticks would burn, the cardboard become ash and rise into the sky, and “Alejandro” and “the Indian” would not emerge? Spurred to foolishness by those who called for courage, might this be the year when merrymaking turned to mourning? The young woman with the long name—let us call her merely Lupe—feared it might be so, while the imitation barracks burned and the boys remained inside.
As was their ancient custom, after the fire was set by eager boys in Indian costumes, the village people chanted, “Muerte! Muerte! Muerte! Death to Spaniards! Death to traitors!” Their refrain arose in tandem with the flames. Only when the fire ascended to the middle of the mock barrack’s spindly walls did some within the crowd begin to yell, “Salido! Salido! Salido!” Come out! they called, a few of them at first, mostly girls and women, then as the minutes slowly passed this call became predominant, until the entire village shouted it as one, Come out! and the boys inside could flee the fire with honor.
Yet they did not come.
“Agua!” someone shouted, probably the boys’ parents, and nearby men with buckets hurried toward the crackling barracks walls. “Agua rapido!” they shouted, and the first man swung his bucket back, prepared to douse a small part of the flames.
Such wild and forceful flames, and so little water, thought young Lupe. Holy Father, please protect them.
Even as she prayed, the first man thrust his bucket forward. Water sizzled in the burning sticks and rose as steam, and from the conflagration burst two little figures. One boy came out robed from head to foot in gray cloth, the cincture at his waist knotted in three places to bring poverty, obedience and chastity to mind. He carried a bundle, the sacred retablo of Fray Alejandro concealed in crimson velvet, a small altarpiece which no one but Padre Hinojosa, the village priest, would ever see. The other boy came nearly naked with only a covering of sackcloth, his bare arms and legs agleam with aloe sap as protection from the heat. The fire around them roared.
Chased by swirling coals and sparks the two brave boys went charging through the crowd, yet no one turned to watch. It was as if young Alejandro and the Indian were unseen, as if they were already spirits on their way to heaven. All the village chanted “Muerte! Muerte! Muerte!” again. All the village faced the burning barracks. All of Rincon de Dolores called for death to Spaniards, death to traitors as the two small figures fled invisibly across the plaza to the chapel, where they entered and returned the treasure, the retablo handed down through centuries.
Alone among the village people, only Lupe seemed to see the boys escape. Watching from the shop door, she alone thanked God for yet another year without a tragedy; she alone refused to play the game, the foolish reenactment they all loved so well, pretending blindness as two boys cheated death. Lupe’s imagination would not let her join the celebration of their unofficial saint’s escape from murderous pagans. She had never felt the kiss of flames upon her flesh, but she had suffered from flames nonetheless.
Often Lupe recalled the winter’s night when her father had laid a bed of sticks within the corner fireplace. The flames took hold and a younger Lupe drew her blanket up above her head as other children did when told of ghosts. Even now the memory of resin snapping in the burning wood intruded on her dreams, conjuring a thousand nightmares drawn from Padre Hinojosa’s homilies about Spanish saints who perished in the flames, Agathoclia and Eulalia of Mérida, and the auto de fe, that fearsome ritual of early Mexico, the stake, and acts of faith imposing pain on saint and heretic alike. Her most grievous loss, many sermons, dreams and sacrifices of the flesh had left her terrified of fire.
Watching from the doorway, Lupe heard a voice. “Do you think this is how it was?”
Although she had not heard him come, a stranger stood beside her, a man in fine dark clothing with full black hair that shimmered slightly in the midday light like the feathers of a crow. From his appearance this man might have been her brother. Like Lupe, he was not tall. Like Lupe his features called to mind stone carvings of the ancient Mayans. Like Lupe, he had a smooth sloped forehead, pendulous ear lobes, and cheekbones high and proud. His golden skin was flawless, as was hers. Like hers, his lips were thick and sensuous, his teeth the flashing white of lightning, his eyes a pair of black pools without bottoms.
“Pardon me, señor?” said Lupe, unaware she might be looking at her twin.
“Do you think this is how it was?” asked the stranger once again. “With Fray Alejandro, and the Indian?”
Lupe only shrugged. “Who knows, señor? It is a very old story.”
The stranger nodded, his unfathomable eyes focused on the plaza.
Perhaps, being a stranger, he did not know the story of Fray Alejandro, how the Franciscan had walked two thousand, four hundred kilometers to Alta California with two other Fernandino brothers. Because he was a stranger it was possible the man knew nothing of the apostate priests who corrupted Alejandro’s efforts to advance the gospel, how his hope to be the hands and feet of Christ to pagan peoples in the north was undone by Spanish cruelty and indulgence, how Alejandro, forced to flee his beloved mission in the north, had escaped the burning buildings with the Indian, his trusted neophyte companion, the two of them miraculously unseen even as they passed among bloodthirsty savages, much as Saint Peter once had passed his guards in Herod’s prison.
If the man knew nothing of this history he would surely learn that day, for every year at Alejandro’s feast all was reenacted by the village children to commemorate the holy man’s exploits. Rome had thus far not enshrined Fray Alejandro among the saints, but Rincon de Dolores had nonetheless adopted him as their patron, for the man of miracles had settled in their little mountain village when the pagans in the north rejected him, and through many acts of kindness he had become their eternally beloved padre, entrusting them with memories of the mission he had lost up north, somewhere in the hills of Alta California.
Lupe considered speaking to the stranger of these things, but he had departed unobserved. She searched the crowd beyond her door to find him. With the Burning of the Barracks finished now, people strolled throughout the village, passing in the shade of well-trimmed ficus trees around the plaza or along the tiles beneath arched porticos where they haggled with the venders who had traveled from afar to set up booths for the fiesta. Some of the venders offered plastic toys for children: balloons, whistles and balls in a hundred riotous colors. Others hawked recordings of mariachi and norteño music. Sweets, hand tools, shawls and pottery . . . everything was there. Near the chapel on the far side of the plaza one could purchase votive candles and milagros, those tiny metal charms that symbolized the miracles requested of the saints. In spite of so much competition, a few still patronized Lupe’s tiendita, her little shop where soda pop and newspapers and other such necessities were offered to the good people of Rincon de Dolores, Jalisco, high in the Sierra Madres.
Forgetting about the stranger, Lupe left her place in the doorway and tended to the customers who visited her shop all afternoon, both villagers and strangers. She took their pesos as the sun outside moved closer to the western mountains and the shadows lengthened. Finally it was almost time for the best part of Fray Alejandro’s fiesta: the gathering at the plaza. The young woman stepped across the stone threshold of her little shop, where the sandals of a dozen generations had shaped a smooth depression. She closed the wooden door. She felt no need for locks. Dressed in a blue cotton skirt and white blouse with a traditional apron, wearing no jewelry and no makeup, with her pure black hair restrained only by a plastic clip, Lupe approached the plaza.
She followed the familia Delgado along the avenida, Rosa and Carlos in their finest clothing normally reserved for Sunday Mass. Rosa’s blouse was perhaps a bit too tight and too low cut in Lupe’s opinion. Carlos was very handsome with silver tips and silver heel guards on his pointed boots. The three Delgado boys were likewise attired in formal fashion, and the youngest child, darling Linda, toddled on the cobblestones in patent leather shoes, with petticoats and a pretty pink dress trimmed with sky blue ribbons.
Lupe sometimes wished for children. The thought arose in moments such as this, but it was always fleeting. At other times she praised the Holy Father for her call to chastity. It was good to be unmarried unless one burned with passion, as San Pablo said, and her passion was for Christ.
When Lupe reach the plaza, oh, such a festivity! She saw men at their carts selling little whimsies—empanadas and tamales and nopales from the prickly pear—and strolling toy vendors with helium balloons and plastic snakes on sticks, and groups of girls approaching marriage age who moved about the plaza casting covert glances at the boys whom they pretended to ignore. Soon everyone would laugh as mariachis in the central gazebo serenaded blushing grandmothers, then the people would ignore the mayor as he promised vast improvements through a needless megaphone, and they would admire Rincon de Dolores’s own ballet folklorico, the handsome boys in black charro suits with felt sombreros and shoulders proudly squared, and the beautiful girls in swirling multicolored skirts like rose bouquets.
Lupe traversed the plaza, greeting all as friends, for she was a friend to everyone. Like Fray Alejandro, she longed to be the hands and feet of Christ to them. She went slowly, smiling on her way, touching this one, kissing that one, freely offering her kindness. Normally this bonhomie was as natural as breath to her, but that day it was a kind of sacrifice she offered. It came from force of will. She did not feel it in her heart, and she was uncertain why. Perhaps her dread had lingered since the moment when the barracks flames had nearly claimed two boys. Yes, probably it was only that. Yet she sensed something else at work within her heart, a conviction, and a fear.
On the far side of the plaza Lupe approached the embers of the imitation barracks, a mound of charcoal now, a black mark on the beauty of the day. It frightened her, yet drew her closer. Remarkably, it still emitted smoke. Only Lupe gave attention to that fact. All the others laughed and strolled and savored conversations unawares, but Lupe there beside the blackened ruins felt her pulse increase and heard the beating of her heart within her inner ear. She found it necessary to remind herself to breathe. She saw the smoke still rising like a slender column standing far above the village, straight and true, until it met the burning fringes of the sunset. Surrounded by festivities, she turned her face up to the sky and saw the strangest thing among the orange and purple clouds. She saw it, yet it could not be.
“Concha,” she called to a passing friend. “That smoke. Would you look at it?”
The woman, whose seven children swirled around her knees, replied, “I told those foolish men to pour more water on those ashes.”
“But the wind . . . .”
Concha and her perpetually squirming offspring had already passed into the crowd.
Lupe wiped sweating palms upon her apron and tried again to find someone to observe this thing and tell her it was real, but the mariachis had begun their brassy serenades and the people moved away from her, toward the gazebo in the center of the plaza. She stared up at the sky again, and asked, “How can that be?”
Someone behind her said, “Perhaps it is a sign.”
Guadalupe Soledad Consuelo de la Garza looked around and saw the stranger with dark hair that shimmered slightly like the feathers of a crow. She felt comforted immediately, for he too had seen the cause of her confusion; he too stood with face turned toward the sky, toward the smoke arising from Fray Alejandro’s ruined mission, the smoke which drifted north against a wind that traveled south.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 12:11 PM
Labels: Lost Mission
If Necessary Use Words
Saturday, August 1, 2009
“Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” While this famous quote of St. Francis of Assisi was intended to guide us in our daily living, it is also marvelous advice for Christian novelists. Many of us have been guilty of using words to preach unnecessarily in our novels through the years. Much has been written in lamentation of this fact, going back at least as far as 1969 and the collected essays of Flannery O’Connor in Mystery and Manners. By now every Christian author knows, or ought to know, the danger of a heavy-handed theme, so on that point we need no further criticism. On the contrary, what we need today, it seems to me, is a reminder that Christian themes remain essential even if they have been seriously abused. Also, it would be helpful to consider a few constructive ideas on how best to achieve a proper balance.
“The storyteller must render what he sees and not what he thinks he ought to see, but this doesn't mean that he can't be, or that he isn't, a moralist in the sense proper to him." ("The Teaching of Literature," Mystery and Manners).
True to human nature, having once identified the problem of overstated themes (often bemoaned as “agendas” or “propaganda”), many Christian literary critics and authors immediately made the mistake of fleeing all the way to the other end of the spectrum. They now advocate a level of restraint that would render theme completely invisible to all but the most psychically gifted of readers. This is nothing but another form of excess, and it is equally lethal to good literature.
As with almost everything, moderation is the key to success. The Christian novelist must not allow the pendulum to swing from overstatement past subtlety into nonexistence, because it is impossible to write a great (or even a good) novel without giving careful consideration to a story’s underlying and unifying meaning. The trick is to do that in proper proportion to all of the other fundamental components of good storytelling. After all, a heavy-handed theme is not the only way to ruin a novel. One can also write a story that is too narrowly focused on the plot, characters, setting or style. On the other hand, imagine the disastrous result if an author decided to abandon one of these aspects of fiction, or reduce it to such obscurity as to be indiscernible. Successful novels always include them all in proper balance. This does not mean they must always be present in the same proportions, of course. Some novels are most notable because they makes us feel we know the characters as well as we know ourselves, while others intrigue us most because of their fascinating plots, and still others are best loved because they transport us to a lovely time and place or amuse us with the author’s clever turn of phrase, but in every case the successful novel will not allow any one component to rise or fall too far in relation to any of the others, and that includes the theme.
With so much debate about the proper level of thematic influence on a story, the writer’s first task in this area is to find a way to judge whether she has gone too far, or not far enough. For that the standard is very simple, really. We know a proper thematic balance has been achieved if readers tell us they did not rise up from the story to think about the theme while they were actually reading the novel, but they did feel compelled to think about it when the book was put away.
Unfortunately, in literature there is a long time between the writer’s act of creation and the reader’s experience (unlike other fine arts such as music, dance or drama) so it is very difficult to use the reader’s experience as a feedback loop to help us keep theme in proper proportion while we write. How can a writer know if she is maintaining a proper thematic balance as she goes? I have three suggestions.
First, the author must gauge it through honest self-examination. Is the writer predisposed to overstate her underlying point? Then let her pay particular attention to subtlety, even if she has the constant feeling that she might not be expressing the moral of her story quite plainly enough. Is the writer prone to understatement? Then let him write with the constant feeling he has gone a bit too far. By pushing past our personal preferences this way, we have a better chance of finding equilibrium.
Second, it is helpful to distribute copies of early drafts to several trusted readers—I suggest five or more, if possible—asking them to note their thoughts and feelings in the margins as they go. In that way one can connect the reader’s responses directly with the passages in question. The readers chosen should be experienced in reading fiction, should appreciate the multiple levels of communication in fiction, should understand the role of theme in fiction, and should understand that unmerciful honesty is required for this kind of feedback to be helpful. The author is the final arbitrator of balance in the novel, of course, but if the majority of one’s advance readers find a particular passage overly didactic, or perhaps even simply “slow”, it is usually worth cutting.
Third, we can achieve thematic moderation with the assistance of a skilled editor. Before a developmental or a line editor goes to work on a manuscript, the writer and editor should discuss the story’s thematic goals thoroughly. This will better equip the editor to determine if those goals are being met. It will also give the writer a better comfort level with the editor’s thinking in this area. (If the writer is uncomfortable with the editor’s grasp of the thematic goals of the story, it may be worth the awkwardness involved to ask the publisher for another editor.) Once the writer and editor have reached an understanding in this way, the writer should trust the editor’s instincts. With the possible exception of style, theme is the most subjective of the fundamental components of fiction. This makes it extremely difficult for the writer to assess dispassionately, which is why it is essential to trust one’s editor in the matter.
Hopefully we have now moved past the question of whether Christian fiction ought to deal with theme and are now solidly into the question of how best to deal with themes in a well balanced way. We have reviewed three ways to gauge that as the story moves through the creative process, but how do we go about communicating theme in the first place?
The writer has many thematic tools at his disposal. They include the various forms of symbolism, use of the grotesque, contrast, repetition or refrain, and the careful selection of words to establish mood. Probably there are others, but these are the ones I know best, and I believe mastery of them is more than enough to accomplish the goal. I hope to discuss each of these techniques in future posts. I also have a few thoughts to share on the interaction of theme with style, setting, plot and character. Look for posts on these topics in weeks to come.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 12:56 PM
A Garden of Words
Sunday, July 26, 2009
A writer friend and I have been discussing the role of theme in novels. He seems to believe an author ought not deliberately set out to convey a Christian truth between the words, for fear of spoiling the integrity of the story. We have some more talking to do before I can be sure, but I think he's really saying it's important not to be "preachy," which is of course, quite true. But in the course of our conversation, he mentioned his son-in-law, a gardener, and said he writes stories the way his son-in-law gardens, as a Christian for sure, but without "a motivation of changing lives." That got me thinking.
How is a writing a novel like planting a garden?
In a gardener's world, integrity and attention to excellence means one doesn't go about planting just anything haphazardly, simply because it's pleasing to the eye at first. Some plants thrive in shade; some don't. Some require good drainage; some like wet roots. Such things must be given as much consideration as aesthetics, or else the end result is less than excellent, regardless of whether it pleases the eye at first, because the plants will quickly die. This is similar to plotting a novel.
Excellent gardeners also consider the interrelationships of shape, height, color and so forth of a plant to the others before deciding where to place it. One doesn't place taller, bushier plants in front of low flowers, for example, or else the flowers are not seen. One puts plants where they do their best work, be it as a centerpiece, or in a supporting role. This is similar to characterization.
But the very best gardens, the ones that are so excellent as to be inherited by future generations of gardeners who carefully and lovingly attend to them in order to keep their beauty alive, are also planted with a sense of something more. As we stroll through them we feel we have been somewhere like this before; we are certain these plants and fountains and winding paths are telling us something true about another world; they instill a longing for something beyond words, a subconscious belief that things could be glorious again if only we could understand this feeling beyond words. In short, they remind us of something wonderful that we have long forgotten. If you've ever been in a world-class garden, you'll know exactly what I mean. And this is tantamount to theme.
It's possible to plant a perfectly acceptable garden without this third design element, of course. In fact, most gardens don't have it. They have the same pretty flowers and shade trees and so forth, but that indefinable quality is missing. People still enjoy them while they're there, but once they are beyond the garden's boundaries the pleasure they felt is quite forgotten. I want to take my readers deeper, to leave them something when they close the book. I want to try to capture the magical quality of a world-class garden, a sense of God's limitless love, an ache within the reader, a feeling that this love one senses is true, and could be restored if one only knew which path to take to reach it.
My friend calls this propaganda. If that is true, it's not the usual "do as you're told" kind. I'm looking to awaken truths that are already there in the reader's heart, not plant a new idea or further an agenda. In a small way with every novel that I write I want to take readers back to primal memories they already have, back to a certain garden as it was before the fall.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 6:46 AM