I'd Like to Say You're Gonna Make It … Children

I’d like to say that everything will be all right

from the time you’re startin’ out in the mornin’

to the time you fall asleep in the sweet moonlight.

I’d like to say that the world is fair,

that you can face it from an easy chair.

I’d like to say it, but it’s just not true.

You do your best, but it’s not always up to you.

So hand it over to hands that are stronger.

His hand is on you if you’ll hand it over.

The Seven Heavenly Virtues Tag

The Orangutan Librarian tagged me for this post that applies the “Seven Heavenly Virtues” to the world of our reading.

By the way. The Seven Deadly Sins are easy to remember, in groups of two, three, and two. There’s The World (Envy, Greed); The Flesh (Lust, Gluttony, Sloth); and The Devil (Anger … and the granddaddy, Pride). The seven virtues are the flip side of these.

Once when I was at university, the theme of our homecoming week was the extremely creative “We’ve Got Pride.” I will always love my fellow English majors who named their contribution to the parade “Beyond pride: the seven deadly sins.” They wanted to show that “[our university] also gots Envy, Greed, Lust, Gluttony, Sloth, and Anger.” And of course it was true.

Onward.

CHASTITY: Which author/book/series you wish you had never read?

Hmm. It’s rare that I go on wishing I had never read a book. Usually if it stuns me with some horror, I hate it at the time, but as my mind assimilates the idea, I’m glad to have encountered it in a book so that I can grapple with that aspect of the world.

A good example is Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. A major part of the plot is a sexual assault. It’s described graphically. The creepy lead-up and the lengthy aftermath include scenes from the point of view of both the victim and rapist. When I read this, it was the first time I’d read a rape described in detail (or, at least, the first time I understood what I was reading). It was very traumatic, and it led to lots of crying and praying for women who were real-life victims. So, as you can see, it bore some good fruit almost immediately.

Later I read another book by Ken Follett in a completely different genre, and it also featured a serial stalker and rapist, with many scenes written from his point of view. At that point I decided that I would not read any more books by Ken Follett, nor would I ever get on an elevator with the man.

TEMPERANCE: Which book/series did you find so good, that you didn’t want to read it all at once, and you read it in doses just to make the pleasure last longer?

I don’t usually show temperance when it comes to serious, emotional reads. … OK, I actually don’t have much temperance at all. I once stayed up all night finishing Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow.

However, with comic series, I find that if you binge on them they can become wearing, whereas if you read one every once in a while, they are refreshing. For example, P.G. Wodehouse’e Bertie Wooster books and Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series.

CHARITY: Which book/series/author do you tirelessly push to others, telling them about it or even giving away spare copies bought for that reason?

Well this question will contain no surprises to anyone who knows me or has followed my blog for any length of time.

The Emberverse series by S.M Stirling: I recommend this often because it encompasses a wide range of interests. The first few books are post-apocalyptic, and then it becomes more of a fantasy series. I’ve recommended it to people because it’s set in the Northwest (Idaho, eastern Washington and Oregon, northern California). Recently I recommended it to someone who is interested in retro martial arts such as sword fighting and archery, because there is a ton of that in these books, including descriptions of how the weapons are made and gripping battle scenes. The research on these books is both wide and deep, from ecology to botany to anthropology to martial arts to Celtic mythology.

Til We Have Faces: A searing, emotional novel about friendship, identity, divided loyalty, and religion. One of C.S. Lewis’s less famous works.

The Everlasting Man (non-fiction): G.K. Chesterton discusses paganism and why it expresses important things about being human … with the cheery paradoxes that only he can bring.

The Divine Conspiracy(non-fiction): With wit and wisdom, Dallas Willard applies the Gospels in a fresh way (which we all need frequently). This is so well-written that it’s a pleasure to read, and you just sail through it even though it’s quite thick.

Now, go forth and read these!

DILIGENCE: Which series/author you follow no matter what happens and how long you have to wait?

Agatha Christie. She has such a large corpus of work that even though I think I’ve read all her novels, I’m never sure.

Also, the Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters.

Also anything by Tony Hillerman or Dick Francis.

It looks like formula mysteries are my genre for this.

PATIENCE: Is there an author/book/series you’ve read that improved with time the most, starting out unpromising, but ultimately proving rewarding?

Watership Down. It is gripping from the first, don’t get me wrong, but it is so long. Then when you get to the end, you discover that the author is doing things with it that only a really long book can do.

KINDNESS: Which fictitious character would you consider your role-model in the hassle of everyday life?

Photo by Rene Asmussen on Pexels.com

Any strong, quiet, capable character who consistently takes care of others. Durnik in the Belgariad; Precious Ramotswe in The No. 1 Ladies series; Bardia in ‘Til We Have Faces; Sam Gamgee, Aragorn, Gandalf, Aslan. And, of course, Zillah from my own books.

Unfortunately my gifts and personality are almost opposite from all these characters. But I’ve always wanted to be strong, quiet, calm, and capable.

HUMILITY: Which book/series/author do you find most under-rated?

This is a hard one to answer because I don’t always have a real great idea of what other people are reading. How can I know that the gem I’ve “discovered” hasn’t also been discovered by a bunch of others?

Apparently Thomas Sowell has a bunch of great books about economics and society that have helped the people who’ve read them greatly … but I have not read them, only watched videos of him speaking. There are many such examples.

Now, Discuss

I hesitate to tag people because it seems to freak them out. But if you get inspired by any of the questions in this tag, please answer them either at your own blog or in the comments.

A New Mom's Favorite Passage from Isaiah

As promised, I am about to post a passage from the book of Isaiah that does not get as much play at Christmastime, but which I love.

Some context: I have long felt the call that these verses awaken in me, especially the first 3 verses of chapter 55 (“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters” etc.). But I really hid this passage in my heart when my oldest was a baby. (That’s a while ago now.) I was a young mom, recently moved to a different country. Basically my entire life was about keeping me and the baby fed, rested, and reasonably clean. Oh, and safe from huge tropical insects. That was it.

I was hungry all the time, because I was breastfeeding and also fasting once in a while (yes, I know, I am crazy). I was also, like most young moms, super emotional. I read these two chapters again and again as I sat holding my baby. There are so many beautiful images in them (cities built of gemstones!), so much comfort (the names of God!), so many promises. There is also the promise of infinite free food, which I realize is metaphorical, but it sounded pretty good to me in my constantly hungry condition. Maybe it’s literal and metaphorical. That would be terrific.

Anyway, this passage, most of Isaiah 54 and all of Isaiah 55, had all the depth and range to deal with my deep, wide-ranging emotions and hungry body. The reading of it has become a very good memory, and I realize that even now, I have not plumbed its depths.

Do not be afraid; you will not suffer shame.

Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated.

You will forget the shame of your youth

and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood.

For your Maker is your husband — the Lord Almighty is his name —

the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer;

he is called the God of all the earth.

The Lord will call you back

as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit —

a wife who married young, only to be rejected, says your God.

“For a brief moment I abandoned you,

but with deep compassion I will bring you back.

In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment,

but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you,”

says the Lord your Redeemer.

“To me this is like the days of Noah,

when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth.

So now I have sworn not to be angry with you,

never to rebuke you again.

Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed,

yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken

nor my covenant of peace be removed,”

says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

“O afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted,

I will build you with stones of turquoise,

your foundations with sapphires.

I will make your battlements of rubies,

your gates of sparkling jewels,

and all your walls of precious stones.

All your sons will be taught by the Lord,

and great will be your children’s peace.

In righteousness you will be established:

Tyranny will be far from you;

you will have nothing to fear.

Terror will be far removed; it will not come near you.

If anyone does attack you, it will not be my doing;

whoever attacks you will surrender to you.

See, it is I who created the blacksmith

who fans the coals into flame

and forges a weapon fit for its work.

And it is I who have created the destroyer to work havoc;

no weapon forged against you will prevail,

and you will refute every tongue that accuses you.

This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord,

and this is their vindication from me,” declares the Lord.

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters;

and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!

Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.

Why spend money on what is not bread,

and your labor on what does not satisfy?

Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,

and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.

Give ear and come to me;

hear me, that your soul may live.

I will make an everlasting covenant with you,

my faithful love promised to David.

See, I have made him a witness to the peoples,

a leader and commander of the peoples.

Surely you will summon nations you know not,

and nations that do not know you will hasten to you,

because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has endowed you with splendor.”

Seek the Lord while he may be found;

call on him while he is near.

Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts.

Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him,

and to our God, for he will freely pardon.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.

“As the heavens are higher than the earth,

so are my ways higher than your ways

and my thoughts than your thoughts.

As the rain and snow come down from heaven

and do not return to it without watering the earth

and making it bud and flourish,

so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,

so is my word that goes out from my mouth:

It will not return to me empty,

but will accomplish what I desire

and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace;

the mountains and hills will burst into song before you,

and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.

Instead of the thornbush will grow the pine tree,

and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.

This will be for the Lord’s renown,

for an everlasting sign,

which will not be destroyed.”

Isaiah 54:4 – 55:13

Philanthropic Quote OF THE DECADE!!!

Philanthropic: Not in the sense of charity, but in the literal sense of loving + people. The opposite, in other words, of mis-anthropic.

Of the decade: The decade is drawing to a close, so everything we post in the next few days can legitimately be called of the decade! What a fun opportunity.

Photo by Rahul on Pexels.com

At Christmastime, Christians like to quote Isaiah. That’s because this Old Testament prophet has several passages that are clearly Messianic and, in retrospect, clearly prophesy Christ. Like many prophetic passages, they have at least a triple meaning. They are prophesies about God restoring Israel from the Babylonian exile … they are prophesies about the coming of Christ, which happened several hundred years later … and they are prophecies about the ultimate golden age of the world which Christ will eventually bring about (although not, as it turns out, immediately upon His first coming, though his life on earth did get the process started). All these things are telescoped together in a breathtaking poetic sweep.

This is the most often quoted passage from Isaiah at Christmastime:

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;

on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. …

Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood

will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,

and the government will be on his shoulders.

And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of his government and peace

there will be no end.

He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom,

establishing it and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time and on and forever.

The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.

Isaiah 9:2, 5 – 7, New International Version

This is the go-to Christmas passage.

Another one that you sometimes hear quoted is this:

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;

from his roots a branch will bear fruit.

The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him —

the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,

the Spirit of counsel and of power,

the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord —

and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes

or decide by what he hears with his ears;

but with righteousness he will judge the needy,

with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.

He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;

with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.

Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

The wolf will live with the lamb,

the leopard will lie down with the goat,

and the calf and the lion and the yearling together;

and a little child will lead them.

The cow will feed with the bear,

their young will lie down together,

and the lion will eat straw like the ox.

The infant will play near the hole of the cobra,

and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest.

They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,

for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord

as the waters cover the sea.

Isaiah 11:1 – 9, NIV

There. That ought to keep you going for days.

But Isaiah is a big book (66 chapters), and these two passages are only from the beginning of it. Tomorrow I will post some lesser-known quotes from Isaiah that are among my favorites.

In the meantime, Merry Christmas! “God bless us, every one!”

The Festive Christmas Book Tag

I got this tag from Em @ The Geeky Jock. It was created by Girl Reading .

1) A fictional family you would like to spend Christmas dinner with?

Whooo this is a tricky one!

I think the ideal place to spend Christmas would be in Germany, Austria or Switzerland, soo … Heidi? Problem is, I haven’t read it.

The Von Trapp family? Not fictional, and not sure I could live up to their standards.

How about Denmark? Hamlet’s family? Never mind, too much family tension.

Scotland? MacBeth? Nope … nope … nope.

How about a big English country house from an Agatha Christie novel? There is sure to be a murder, but on the other hand the food and the service would be terrific. But I would certainly make a fool of myself on account of not having sufficiently good table manners and not understanding the British class system. A fate worse than … death.

Bertie and Jeeves? Getting closer, but Bertie by himself is not really a family.

I’ve got it. Almost all the Grimms’ fairy tales take place in Germany. All I have to do is find a fairy tale family to spend Christmas with.

Cinderella? … Family tension again.

Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother? That would be great, except I think in the original version they die.

Hansel and Gretel? Yet more family tension, and they are starving. Maybe I could spend Christmas with Hansel and Gretel and their father post-witch.

Actually, now that I think about it, I have a pretty good family to spend Christmas with already. There is plenty of food, no murder, and a minimal amount of family tension. In this case, truth is better than fiction.

2) A bookish item you would like to receive as a gift?

An agent! A publisher! A BOOK DEAL! (hysterical laughter)

3) A fictional character you think would make a perfect Christmas elf?

Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He’s already an elf, so it’s not a stretch.

4) Match a book to its perfect Christmas song.

Game of Thrones … We Three Kings.

(I haven’t read it, but it’s about kings, right?)

5) Bah Humbug. A book (or fictional character) you’ve been disappointed in and should be put on the naughty list?

Austin Lively of Andrew Klavan’s serialized novel, Another Kingdom.

Austin, Austin, Austin. You spent the first two seasons transforming from a Hollywood wannabe into a brave and honorable man.

Now, at the beginning of the third season, you’re a powerful Hollywood SOB who is taking women to the Casting Couch.

What happened? Have you forgotten who you are, Austin?

You’d better remember quick, because until you do, I am going to be cheering over every bad thing that happens to you.

6) A book or fictional character you think deserves more appreciation and deserves to be put on the nice list?

Anthony Trollope isn’t as well-known as Jane Austen but his books are just as funny.

7) Red, Gold, and Green. A book whose cover has a wonderfully Christmassy feel to it.

A classic from my husband’s childhood.
I think of this little devotional as a Christmas one because we originally got it during Advent and the first chapter is about Christmas.

8) A book or series you love so much, you want everyone to find it under their Christmas tree this year so that they can read and love it too.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, starring Precious Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi (both of the agency) … Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors … Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s hapless assistant, Charlie … the somewhat overbearing Mma Potokwane who runs the orphanage … and many, many others.

These books are just so heart-warming and they go down so easy. Although written in a certain order, it’s easy for the reader to jump right in even if you read them out of order. And they are addictive. I think a book or two – or a crateful – from this series would brighten any reader’s Christmas.

Misanthropic Quote of the Week: from Apollyon

Apollyon does NOT like people. He is the ultimate misanthrope.

art by Alan Parry in Dangerous Journey

Apollyon: Where have you come from?

Christian: From the City of Destruction.

Apollyon: By this I perceive that you are one of my subjects. For I am the Prince of that city. Why then are you running away from your prince?

Christian: I was indeed born in your dominions. But I have given my allegiance to another, who is the King of Princes. How can I now, with fairness, go back on this? … Besides, to tell you the truth, I like his service better than yours.

Apollyon: You have already been unfaithful to him. You fell in the Slough of Despond. You slept, and let fall your parchment. And in all you say and do, you are inwardly desirous of vain-glory.

Christian: Too well I know it. Yet the King whom I serve is merciful and ready to forgive.

Apollyon: I am the enemy of this King. I hate his person, his laws and his people. Give him the slip, and work for me, and your wages shall be doubled.

Christian: I know your wages, you destroying Apollyon. They are not such as a man can live on.

Adapted from Dangerous Journey, US. ed., Eerdmans, 2012

The Perfect Book Tag

I was tagged for this by my favorite literate primate. How could I let her down?

n.b. “Perfect,” as I will use it below, doesn’t always mean perfect but rather perfect in its context or else merely “really terrific.” Especially when used of actual, historical people. As we all know, perfection isn’t perfect, right?

The Perfect Genre

“Pick a book that perfectly represents its genre.”

The Rise and Fall of Ben Gizzard is the perfect Western.

“Ben Gizzard would die on the day he saw a white mountain upside down and a black bird talked to him, but not before. An old Indian he cheated out of some furs told him this.

“This was good news to a man as mean and crafty as Ben Gizzard. He settled in treeless, birdless Depression Gulch and cheated, robbed, and killed his way to riches. How his life seemed charmed in that place where there were neither mountains nor birds!

“But one day a young artist arrived in town with a large black bird sitting on his shoulder. Oh, Ben Gizzard!

“Our slithering villain comes to his end when he least expects it, and the world is a better place without him, and a better place for the telling of his story, which is both funny and awesome.”

The Perfect Setting

“Pick a book that takes place in a perfect place.”

Gosh, there are so many books that I love for their setting. There is Pearl Buck’s Pavilion of Women (an aristocratic household in pre-Mao China), Susan Cooper’s The Grey King (Wales, with magic), and Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series (modern-day Botswana).

But my top pick would have to be Treasures of the Snow by Patricia St. John. It takes place in a beautiful, sensuously described version of Switzerland (example: the children picking fresh strawberries and eating them with cream for lunch) and, of course, the fact that everything is so mountainous is crucial to the plot.

The Perfect Main Character

“Pick the perfect main character.”

I’m gonna have to go with Bilbo Baggins here. His combination of humility and spunk cannot be beat.

The Perfect Best Friend

“Loyal and supportive, pick a character that you think is the best friend ever.”

Sam Gamgee would be an obvious choice, but there are class issues there, so instead, let me name Mr. Tumnus from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Reason: Tumnus just met Lucy an hour or two ago and she has not done anything special for him … and yet he’s ready to put his own life on the line to protect her from the Witch’s secret police. “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friend.”

The Perfect Love Interest

“Pick a character you think would be an amazing romantic partner.”

Playing “mad dog” with his children.

Charles Ingalls from the Little House series.

On the down side, he will drag you and your children across the American frontier, where you will almost lose your lives in every. single. chapter.

But on the plus side! The man can build a livable house, single-handed, in a few weeks. He can dig a well, provide food, and make friends with the Indians. He’s never met a stranger. He is gentle and kind with Caroline and his daughters, and he is unflaggingly cheerful, even when starving. (Read The Long Winter and watch him effusively praise the dehydrated cod gravy that Caroline breaks out to put some variety in the family’s totally inadequate diet.) And he can fiddle, sing, and dance! What more could you ask for?

This guy is a ball of energy and good cheer. There would be no better person to have by your side in the hairy situations that he will surely get you into.

The Perfect Villain

“Pick a character with the most sinister mind.”

“Amazing Amy” from Gone Girl. I don’t think it will be too much of a spoiler, by now, to tell you that she fakes her own death and frames her husband for it, then fantasizes about “him getting butt-raped in jail.” It’s never clear what Nick did to deserve such a fate, other than fail to think she is sufficiently amazing. And that trick she pulls at the end of the book … well …!

The Perfect Family

“Pick a perfect bookish family.”

Photo by Kata Pal on Pexels.com

Since I was a little hard on the Dutch on Friday, let me rehabilitate them a bit. My “perfect bookish family” is a Dutch family, and they actually lived: the ten Boom family of Haarlem, circa 1935.

Corrie ten Boom’s book The Hiding Place describes how the family took in Jews during the occupation until they were turned in and went to concentration camps themselves. Even though the book is about the Holocaust, it is heartwarming and includes many laugh-out-loud moments. The heartwarming part is Corrie’s description of the family’s life in their tiny, ramshackle house/watch shop. The laughing out loud comes mostly from the personality of her father, Casper ten Boom, a true character and an amazing man of God whom I look forward to meeting some day. Corrie’s mom was also amazing, and I think it was her warm personality (and Casper’s) that offset the natural sternness of the Dutch of that time, making the ten Booms … the perfect bookish family.

The Perfect Animal or Pet

“Pick a pet or fantastic animal that you need to see on a book.”

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The humble chicken.

There are a few books with a chicken protagonist. The Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wangerin, Jr., is one. There is also a Russian fairy tale where a rooster saves two poor children:

“I, the cock, have a crimson comb / And the wicked czar has nothing like it! / He took away their fortune / from two poor little orphans / And he dines in style / while they go hungry!”

The Perfect Plot Twist

“Pick a book with the best plot twist.”

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Stern Men by Elizabeth Gilbert.

(Yes … it’s about lobstermen.)

Though it takes place on a tiny island in Maine, this book features a Jane Austen-worthy plot twist near the end.

The Perfect Trope

“Pick a trope that you would add to your own book without thinking.”

Photo by Luis Quintero on Pexels.com

Spiritual transformation of a main character.

Not only would I add this without thinking, I actually wouldn’t think of writing a novel where it did not happen. To me, spiritual transformation is a critical part of a novel.

(Not that I don’t enjoy books where this trope doesn’t take place. Mystery series, particularly, do well if the detective MCs are fairly static.)

There are a few novels where the transformation is almost the only thing that happens. I give you The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, and all the Church of England novels by Susan Howatch. But much more commonly, the MC’s spiritual transformation happens as a result of a lot of other action in the plot, as in The Hobbit (fantasy), Identity Man by Andrew Klavan (crime thriller), and many, many others.

The Perfect Cover

“Pick the cover that you would easily put on your own book.”

My book is not St. George and the Dragon, but this is the artist I would have wanted to do my covers: Trina Schart Hyman. She’s gone now, but her art lives on. I have been trying my whole life to draw and paint like she did. I’ll bet she would have made the ruined Tower of Babel look amazing.

The Perfect Ending

“Pick a book that has the perfect ending.”

Photo by Public Domain Pictures on Pexels.com

A Christmas Carol.

It’s the ultimate happy ending. We feel Scrooge’s childlike joy when he realizes he is being given another chance at life. Also, Tiny Tim is not dead after all and Scrooge has a chance to save him. “The spirits did it all in one night!” There is a strong sense of death and re-birth, not just of Scrooge but of his entire world.

I realize that everyone knows how the book ends and you might think of it as a cliche at this point, but really, if you read the entire book, hanging in there through Scrooge’s sad childhood, slow hardening, the horrific descriptions of poverty, etc., and then you get to the end and it doesn’t move you, well, I don’t know what to do for you, really.

Why Religion in Fiction is So Hard to Handle

A fellow blogger, Never Not Reading, made this delightful post: More Religious Characters Please.  She points out that devout religious characters, particularly Christians, are extremely rare in fiction compared to their distribution in the general population. 

I Have my Doubts about the Concept of Representation

She comes at this from the “representation” point of view, which is predicated on the idea that every kind of person ought to be able to find someone like them in fiction, and that if they can’t, this is somehow unfair or discriminatory.  I don’t actually buy in to the assumptions behind this view. There are philosophical problems with the concept of “someone who is like me” that, if we parsed them, I suspect we would never get to the bottom of.  I also think there are some other faulty assumptions packed in to the idea of representation: assumptions about what fiction means to the author and what fiction is meant to do for the reader.  So, I find the whole idea of representation suspect. 

Is This Persecution?

However, Never Not Reading is right about one thing.  Religion plays a large role in life for very many – perhaps the majority – of people.  It does not play any role in the characters’ lives in much of the fiction that is out there.  This is even true of fiction set in historical periods such as the Middle Ages. 

When religion does play a major role in a story, it is often portrayed as a force for evil.  That goes double for Christianity.

What is the reason for this?

Never Not Reading goes out of her way to emphasize that she is not saying this lack of religious characters is a form of persecution.  I agree.  I think there are many complex reasons for it, which we will explore below. 

Possible Reasons Non-Christian Authors Don’t Portray Devout Christian Characters

They don’t know any Christians in real life.  Although polls will tell you that the majority of U.S. citizens identify as Christian, there are large pockets of society that are very secular.  One of these is New York City, home to the publishing industry in America.  Another is L.A., home to Hollywood.  If you are an artist or writer, you are likely to move to one of these places to launch your career.  There, it is easy to live your life without ever interacting with anyone who is openly Christian.  It’s easy to get the impression that most people are secular, at least most normal people.  And if your mental image of Christians is some variety of kook, it’s possible that some of your acquaintances are believers and you don’t realize it because they seem so normal.

It’s easier to portray madness than sanity, evil than good.  Most people are bored by portrayals of virtue.  A story with no evil in it is going to come grinding quickly to a halt.  So if you are going to put religion into your story, it is easier to make the religious person the villain.   The villain in Stephen King’s Misery, Annie, is a beautifully drawn portrayal of a crazy person who at first seems normal.  Nothing beats the creepiness of the moment when, after torturing the hero, she starts to tell him that she has been talking to God.

Religion is also a great way to add punch, depth, and believability to your villain/cult leader.  Christian-type religions, when they go bad, go really terrifyingly bad.  This is easier to portray than the comparatively sane boring version, especially if you don’t actually know any sane and boring Christian groups.

They may actually hate them. Writing fiction is unavoidably a spiritual practice. Fiction is about how we see the world, people, the problem of evil, the cosmos … in short, about how we see reality.  The only instruments we have with which to perceive and portray these things are our own eyes, ears, mind, and heart.  These are the tools with which we write fiction.  

Fiction will therefore reflect the author’s personal spiritual state as well as his or her unique personality.  If a person has rejected God, their heart may actually be at war with God and with His people.  This may come out in their writing, particularly if their writing is deep and heartfelt. 

Stephen King, again, is a great example of this.  He is a brilliant writer.  I love his work.  I tried to read Insomnia, and I couldn’t get through it because the pro-life character was also a despicable wife-beater (and was showing signs, when I stopped reading, of maybe being possessed by something or other.  After all, it’s a Stephen King novel.)   

Again, I am not saying this phenomenon is persecution.  It is a natural consequence of the nature of fiction.  It is always possible, when reading an author, to tell what he or she loves and hates.  And some authors do hate Christians.

Possible Reasons Christian Authors Don’t Portray Devout Christian Characters

They wish to have wide appeal.   Christian authors are aware that religion of any kind, but particularly Christianity, is Kryptonite to many people.  It is enough to make people put down a book.  That’s a shame, particularly if the story we are telling can be told without overt Christianity.  After all, our first duty is to entertain the reader.  We are not preachers, we are storytellers, so the story itself is supposed to be what we bring to the reader.

They fear being defensive.  If we do put Christianity in to our book, aware that some readers will be skeptical or hostile, we could fall into making the book an apology or defense of our religion.  Good authors don’t want to write a thinly veiled philosophical or political rant. (Hi there, Ayn Rand! Hello, Dan Brown!).  They just want to tell a story.  This is really, really tricky to do if we are feeling defensive, on account of the whole author’s-spiritual-state-comes-out-in-the-writing thing.  So to avoid preachiness, it can be easier simply to avoid the whole topic.

They fear being unoriginal.  As an author who grew up in the church, when I first started writing I wanted my writing to be interesting and new.  Anything drawing on the Bible would be, I felt, tame and derivative.  (Of course, that didn’t stop 12-year-old me from shamelessly ripping off Tolkien.) 

Unfortunately, if you want to be wise it does not do to turn away from the font of all wisdom.  In the years since, I have discovered that the Old and New Testaments are an incredibly rich source of story, history, myth, emotion, insight and symbolism that literally never runs dry.  Some of my favorite pieces of art draw openly from the Bible.  But surprisingly, instead of making them tired and derivative, this gives them their power.  An example is Johnny Cash’s When the Man Comes Around.  The lyrics are literally just a series of random quotes from the Old Testament prophets (plus a few quotes from Jesus), and the song still gives me goose bumps every time.

Religion is just too big to control in our writing. 

This, I think, is the #1 problem for both Christian and non-Christian writers.  If we are going to write about true religion (as opposed to the fake and hypocritical kind), then we are writing about God.  We have just unleashed God into our book.  This is sort of like blithely grabbing on to a blasting fire hose.  It immediately introduces all these deep, destructive, hard-to-portray realities that are just too much for most writers to corral. 

What kind of book we are capable of writing depends on our wisdom and maturity as a writer and as a person.  I have made the mistake of trying to write about God when I was an immature writer, and I was not. Ready. For it.  Trying to “include” God threw off all the dynamics of the book and basically destroyed it.  My writing about the other characters wasn’t deep or wise enough to keep up.  I wasn’t yet good enough at writing about the human heart, about suffering, about betrayal.  My characters were paper dolls and God was a firehose.

Dostoevsky can do it.  Mary Doria Russell did a great job in The Sparrow.  But for us ordinary writers, if we choose to stay away from making religion a serious part of our plot, I think it might just be a sign of knowing our limits.

A Song Where God is the Actual Hero

A few weeks ago, I posted an awful contemporary Christian song that makes “you” the hero instead of Christ. So I think it only fair to post this one, in which we find out after everything is over that it was he who was calling us. The technical term for this is sovereign grace.

The only problem is, I couldn’t find the version of this song that I like. My first introduction to it was in the form of an arrangement that sounds a bit peppy, like a folk song. In the arrangement, the words of the last verse are used as a fast-moving refrain. But I can’t for the life of me find said arrangement anywhere on YouTube. So, I have posted the original hymn with the lyrics handily printed out. The hymn has a very different sound – almost like plainsong. It’s okay, but I like the energy of the arrangement. So if you can find the arrangement, please post it in a comment.

“Please God, Don’t Let Me Become a Christian Novelist!”

He doesn’t know it, but crime novelist Andrew Klavan is a mentor of mine.

Klavan grew up as a secular Jew on Long Island. After his bar mitzvah, he threw away hundreds of dollars of expensive gifts because he realized that neither he nor his parents believed the Hebrew Scriptures that he had just professed. He proceeded to do some time as a journalist and to write a bunch of hard-boiled crime novels. He liked noir because it takes an unflinching look at life in all its grittiness … a perspective that he thought was the opposite of that taken by religion.

As he got older, Klavan’s love for reality led him to become a Christian in his late 40s. It’s a transformation that he chronicles in his memoir, The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ.

Becoming a Christian always solves some problems but causes others. As he realized that he was about to become a Christian, one of Klavan’s fears was that he would no longer be able to write hard-boiled fiction. He remembers pleading, “Please, God, don’t let me become a ‘Christian novelist’!”
Of course, by ‘Christian novelist’ he did not mean the likes of G.K. Chesterton, George McDonald, T.S. Eliot, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, or Flannery O’Connor. He meant someone who writes novels (or movies) in which nothing seriously bad ever happens.

Klavan does a great job of articulating a philosophy of fiction that has also become my own. No, the sex and violence in my novels isn’t as explicit as in his. (We all have to find our own ‘ew’ threshold.) But I do believe that, if you are going to have real characters, they should be flawed. And if you are going to have a real plot, then – you can’t get away from it – at some point ‘the worst’ has to happen.

Klavan explains how a Christian can even dream of writing about sex, violence, and cussing in the five-minute video below.