How Fictional can “Christian Fiction” Be (while remaining “Christian”)?

[subtitle: Can a Christian Write Non-Christian or Even Antichristian fiction?]

I recently wrote about my early writing ambitions, the study I did and the stories I wrote. Those ambitions never came to fruition but I haven’t given up on them. However things have changed significantly since those University days. Back then there were few restraints on what I wrote – I could tackle any topic, any style and any genre without too much concern. But now I see things differently.

At that time I was going through a spiritual crisis, battling with the beliefs I’d held throughout the previous decade or more. It was a time of questioning and the pushing of boundaries, trying to come to terms with what I did or did not believe and what I SHOULD believe.

My spiritual condition could be summed up in this (paraphrased from memory) description of a character in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children: “he could not worship a God in whom he could not wholly disbelieve”. To me this describes someone caught between two camps. On the one hand not certain enough of the reality of God to fully devote his life to God; on the other hand not certain enough of God’s non-existence to cast aside all restraint to live a totally God-less life.

It was several years afterwards that I emerged from that crisis with a renewed faith, a development that has consequences for any writing ambitions that I’ve retained. I feel there ARE now restraints on what I write and how I write. There are responsibilities that twenty years ago I didn’t feel were relevant. There are types of writing that wouldn’t be appropriate for me to tackle, to state the obvious: pornography.

But the “restraints” go further than personal moral convictions and extend to the type of spiritual reality that a story portrays. A good friend of mine suggested that there are serious problems with any story that leaves God and the gospel of Jesus out of the equation. To my mind this doesn’t mean that every story a Christian writes (or reads) should contain specific references to these important spiritual realities, it just means that a Christian’s fictional world should remain consistent with the foundational spiritual truths they claim to embrace. The framework of a fictional world created by a Christian writer needs to have Christian realities at its core – even if that core is not specifically mentioned.

I became even more convinced of this yesterday when I read the following on the blog of a Christian author where he describes a major plot-point of his first published novel:
“…a man who’d been used by God to raise someone from the dead was sacrificed to a pagan deity. His soul was effectively imprisoned and the Land was cursed. That curse was maintained by each successive generation. One of my protagonist’s goals becomes to “free” this healer and return his soul to God.

Several reviewers pointed out that, in the real world, this was impossible.
And I pretty much agree.”

Further into his article he decries what he labels “the Theology Police” (a term he “wield[s] with lotsa snark”) who would criticise his story’s premise.

I have a very serious problem with the attitude the author is conveying. He seems to suggest there is absolutely no responsibility on Christian authors to remain true to even the most basic of the spiritual truths their alleged faith upholds. As if they can cast aside foundational truths to portray an alternative spiritual worldview all for the sake of story. As if the story takes priority over truth.

I’m sure many will agree with him and disagree with me – pointing out that he is an author writing fiction, that there are no limits on what he should be able to write in his own created fictional world.

Of course any fiction writer can create whatever reality they think suits their story – but whether that fiction writer can still legitimately refer to themselves as a Christian writer, or by the more flexible label of “writer who is a Christian” is debatable. For the writer (and reader) with no strong religious conviction all of this wouldn’t be an issue. But to someone believing in a genuine spiritual battle in which there are personal eternal consequences the situation ought to be entirely different.

In the case mentioned above, the author himself recognises the problem with the scenario his novel presents: as if the “soul” of a Godly many could be imprisoned after death and need to be freed to return to God.
What kind of spiritual “reality” and God is that portraying? And does it really matter as long as it’s entertaining?
I’d say it is a false reality and a false God, and YES it does matter.

Personally I’d prefer to read a well written secular novel by a non-believing author than one written by a Christian that protrays a counterfeit spirituality and a false God.

At least with the non-Christian author I have no false expectations about what I’d be reading.

Stories What I wrote III

I tried a few different genres of writing but found I was getting the best response with “horror” stories – or at least those that leaned towards horror. These were especially successful when I read them at monthly “poetry readings”. I still recall the squirming, uncomfortable laughter of one of my lecturers when he realised where the story was heading. Seeing that honest response in person was far more satisfying at the time than reading a few complimentary comments he’d written on some of my assignments.

I don’t want to go into the sordid details of the story. It’s not something I’d write today, but I will say something about the inspiration that led to it. It came from a Stephen King short story I’d been reading. I thought I could see where the story was heading but found I was wrong. His conclusion was totally different from the one I’d anticipated, so I took the ending that I’d assumed would happen and worked backwards to create a completely different story from the one King had written.

To conclude this little trilogy of articles I want to mention two of what I considered my best stories of that time. The first came out of a suggestion by a fellow student. He said when he was stumped for ideas he’d look to bible stories for a spark of inspiration. He’d do that with no more religious intent than anyone doing the same thing by referring to Shakespeare for an idea.

I thought of the story of David and Bathsheba, how David’s sight of her bathing led to all kinds of trouble. My story started with the protagonist seeing his new neighbour lying beside her swimming pool. I read the first draft to the class and found myself under attack from the group’s feminists who objected to a story beginning with a man’s lustful gaze. Maybe referring to the bible for story inspiration backfired.

After revisions and editing I had a story I was happy with – a kind of obsessive love story that included references to my interest in film-making and my experience with animation. It has no happy ending. The romance comes to a sudden end when the woman discovers her feelings for the man may have been manipulated through “supernatural means” and she turns the tables on him.

The other story came from a memory of my grandad. When I was a young child he was often very sick and spent a lot of time bedridden, sometimes becoming very confused about where he was and WHEN he was. At times he thought it was still the time of WWII.

During one of these confused episodes he held a conversation with the faces he could see in the rose pattern of the wallpaper. And that was the initial inspiration of my story of a bed-bound man being nursed by his wife. But his experience goes far beyond conversations with imagined faces. He finds himself taken into a world contained within the wallpaper pattern. There he meets a seductive but dangerous woman with thorn like claws. He wakes and realises it’s all a dream, until he finds some physical evidence that the woman might not be a mere product of his sleep induced imagination… or maybe something else is going on. Could his wife be tormenting him, fuelling his imagination with drugs? Is it really prescribed medication she is giving him or something else?

That’s the end of this little exploration of my past fictional writings. It might be something I come back to at another time. I could write about the plans I had to write stories (and even a novel) based on my experiences in church, but those ideas are something I am more likely to put to use in the future and I don’t want to give away too many of my ideas before I have the opportunity to write those stories.

The other things, those that I’ve written about in these three articles are well and truly in the past. The actual stories are dead and buried with no hope of resuscitation.

Stories What I Wrote II

Acceptance into the Creative Writing course was the easy part. Presenting a portfolio of writing fragments (written over a long period) helped me get in – but from that point I needed to do something I’d not done since leaving High School more than a decade earlier. Write completed stories, regularly, to deadlines.

And something entirely new: write things of substantial length. No more one page essays and half page “short stories”. No more token, last minute scribbles to get homework in on time. I was doing the course out of choice, and living on a tiny income for at least three years, so I couldn’t afford to settle for the easy way through it all. What would be the point of doing that?

The first story I remember from the first semester is one I wrote about the birth of a young couple’s first child. Most of it was quickly handwritten between lectures, and then edited and polished as I typed it on my computer. It is still the only time I’ve handwritten a story since High School. For me making changes on a written page is a messy and confusing business. I wouldn’t get anywhere without the simplicity and neatness of cut and paste.

That story became the first in a very loose trilogy. The second part was written the following year and the couple’s relationship had taken a turn for the worst, the only thing holding the fragments together was their young child.
Neither of the above stories was anything special. I was trying to find my feet in a strange world struggling with books I wouldn’t normally read and writing essays full of ideas that wouldn’t have occurred to me in “real life”. But eventually I settled into this foreign routine, enjoying the exercise my flabby brain was now getting, and my story writing started to improve.

The third part of my “trilogy” came out of a writing exercise. The class had to compile a list of the characteristics of ghost stories. Creaking doors, rattling chains, sudden mists, deserted and ruined houses, bumps in the night – and all of the other clichés we could think of. After compiling the list we had to take several of those elements and incorporate them into a non-ghost story.

My story centred on the husband/father from the two stories mentioned above. His relationship has ended and he has taken off alone to stay in a friend’s isolated lakeside cottage, drowning his sorrows with Irish whiskey. His intended time alone is disrupted. He is woken from a drunken sleep by the unexpected appearance of a young mysterious woman whose presence has an unwanted effect on him and his attempt to escape his problems.

The end of the story took an unpleasant turn with an attempted rape and an act of arson and if I remember correctly the man’s (possible) suicide. Optimistically I submitted it to a literary magazine. They rejected it, saying it became too melodramatic after a promising start.

(coming later “Stories What I Wrote III)

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(I’m assuming that most won’t understand the reason for the bad grammar in the title of this series of posts. As a child one of my favourite TV shows was a comedy variety programme starring an English comedy duo Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise. Each week in this series Ernie Wise presented his “play what I wrote”, in which respected guests starred – routinely becoming the butt of Eric and Ernie’s jokes in a mock drama. I recall at least one High School writing assignment in which I unashamedly ripped off and adapted a Morecambe and Wise routine. With this title I give a nostalgic nod to that teenage act of plagiarism.)

Stories What I Wrote.

Bachelor of Creative Arts. That’s the course I started mid-1990. But within a week I’d applied for a transfer to a plain, ordinary Bachelor of Arts degree.
My intended major was Creative Writing, but as a BCA student I was required to do other Arts related subjects that I wasn’t keen to study at that time. Things I thought were irrelevant to my reasons for being at University. So I added Literature to my major and increased my reading obligations by a ridiculous amount. By the time I graduated my love of reading had been undermined (but that’s another story).

To be accepted for the BCA I had to submit a portfolio of work to assess whether I was a suitable candidate for the school. Whatever I submitted must have shown potential because I was accepted. I no longer have any of those old pieces of writing. They were thrown out many years ago.

My memory of that portfolio is hazy, but I’m sure it contained a few fragmentary stories very loosely based on nostalgic memories of my teens. Actual experiences were spiced up and combined with a lot of “what ifs” – “What if I’d done this instead of that?”… I also had my characters doing some of the things my friends and I WOULD have done, if only we’d been less restrained by thoughts of consequences.

The only complete stories I recall from around that time were two fantasy/science fiction short stories.
One involved the crew of a space station who one by one were being killed, until the last man standing, realising he must be the killer (though he can’t recall any of the murders) is suddenly confronted by the truth. The story touched upon the subliminal effects of advertising. And considering no one will ever get to read the story which no longer exists – I’ll spoil the ending: the cat did it.

I’m not sure why a cat would be included in the crew of a space station. Maybe that’s a question the writers of Alien can answer.

In space no one can hear you meow!

In space no one can hear you meow!

The other story started off with the discovery of an unconscious woman on the beach. I no longer remember details, apart from the contrived “twist” at the end where she it is revealed she is a mermaid. Clearly her rescuer wasn’t the brightest “knight in shining armour”, not noticing that the woman he was carrying to safety had a tail instead of legs.
So my first fully formed stories weren’t works of literary art, but I had enough naïve hope at the time to keep discouragement at bay.

(to be continued… maybe)

Have I Forgotten How to Write?

Have I forgotten how to write?

I’m not asking about my ability to string sentences together to express my thoughts and ideas. Clearly I wouldn’t have posted over 180 short pieces on this blog if that was the case.
I mean, have I lost the ability to write stories?

It is now 20 years since I studied Creative Writing and English Literature for my degree. I haven’t written a story since then.

Why?

Is time a factor?

Not really. In those twenty years I’ve had two extended periods of “unemployment” when I had more than enough time to devote to writing. One of those periods was immediately after graduation, so at that time it wasn’t even a matter of being out of practice.

The clear difference was that I had no need to write and there was no deadline to be met. It was something I could put off until another day. I wasn’t going to fail a course if I didn’t put fingers to keyboard and put my imagination to work.

Is it a matter of ideas (or lack of them).
Again, not really. I’ve found that the best stimulation to imagination is to start writing. My best ideas came through the process of writing. One sentence leading to another until the spark of a story started to form. And that’s the way I was able to write all of the stories and essays required for my course.

My failure hasn’t been due to lack of time or lack of ideas, but due to lack of commitment and application. I can write. I can write well – but do I really have the desire? The experience of the last 20 years seems to show that I don’t desire it enough.

And yet…

I think again about my motivation at university. Was it all about the need to pass a course and gain a degree? Or was it the fact of my writing having a PURPOSE? That I was writing for a reason. Even if the ultimate aim was a degree, each individual project was going to be read – and isn’t that the hope of every writer and a motivation for them to write? To have a readership?

Reading, Writing, Failed Ambition.

Three years ago I started to keep a record of every book I read. This helped to motivate me to finish reading books I had started. I realised I had far too many partially read books on my shelves.

Here are my reading stats from the beginning of that exercise.

2009: 10 books (from early November to end of year)

2010: 63 books

2011: 47 books

2012 to 7 August: 25 books

 Total: 145 books to date.

During that time I have rarely given up on a book I started reading. From memory I can only recall three.

This year I’ve struggled a little. It’s been harder for a book to maintain my interest. I’m not sure whether that’s due to my state of mind or the kind of books I’ve been reading. Therefore my progress has been slower.

Fiction hasn’t interested me so much recently, so I haven’t come across many of those “can’t put down” novels.

 Mostly I’ve been reading art related books, trying to overcome a lifetime’s ignorance of art and artists. Those books are often heavily illustrated with reproductions of art works, so it’s not just a matter of reading all of the text and putting the book into a completed pile. I return to them for ideas and inspiration, considering the techniques used and thinking of ways I can try them in my own paintings.

This whole, recording exercise was initially linked to a perceived need to read more diligently. I had become increasingly disappointed with the direction of my working life; stuck in an office day after day doing work in which I had no interest. The possibility of an escape was becoming less likely.

Over the years I’ve made two serious attempts to change my employment situation.

20 years ago I left 13 years of work behind to commence full time University study as a “mature age student”. I spent three years studying creative writing and English literature with the hope of becoming a professional writer. I did very well and loved the experience. Then came a year of unemployment after which I eventually found myself back in the type of administrative office work I’d tried to leave behind.

12 years later I tried another escape route. I left my job, I sold my home, and moved from the city to a country town 4 hours inland. I had no firm plan of what I would do but my hopes were high. I started with casual farm work, stacking supermarket shelves and anything else that came along. The “anything else” included a few weeks working in an office. Those few weeks stretched out until four years had passed. Here I am again, different office but same old situation.

Back to the “need” to read more diligently.

When I started the reading exercise I was hoping to reignite a passion for writing – the only thing that seemed like it could offer a viable way out. It has been a recurring ambition: the ONLY realistic ambition I recall having even in childhood (I rule out trapeze artist, a fleeting idea I had after seeing a Burt Lancaster movie).

All of the advice I’ve seen given to prospective writers is their need to read, read a lot and read widely. My own reading had slipped away significantly over the years since I left university, until I found myself rarely reading at all. By rediscovering the pleasures of reading I hoped to find my way back to writing. But sadly, three years after starting the reading project, I’m no closer to achieving anything more than writing regular blog entries.