spiritual-system-rating-booksI was intrigued enough by the intention of David Bergsland’s A Spiritual System for Rating Books that I purchased the book. Frankly, it delivers on its promise. The question I’m left with, however, is how biblical this “spiritual system” really is and whether or not such systems serve Christian writers and readers or turn storytelling into Pharisaical tedium.

On his website, Bergsland describes having given up on Christian fiction because it was “Laodicean drek… lukewarm pablum—baby food with no real spiritual content.” As a result, he developed his own system for “discerning the spiritual level of any book, Christian or not.” Bergsland outlines five levels of critique ranging from the innocuously “religious” to the “consciously redemptive.” From the website:

  1. The clean read: Most so-called Christian fiction is not. Most of it is the stereotypical and dreaded “clean read”. This term needs some discernment. Clean means no cussing, no sex, and no violence. But it also means, in most cases, no spiritual reality.
  2. Old testament level: Another large section of “Christian fiction” consists of Old Testament tales,or stories on an Old Testament level… There is certainly no savior, often not even a hint that one might be necessary. So, by definition, without Christ it cannot be a Christian book.
  3. The religious level: This level of Christian book is already uncommon in speculative fiction. In it, the Christian walk is carried out by human effort, in most cases. Even if grace is understood, it is always in the context of people sharing what they think should be done in the light of the scriptures, tradition, or reason. The focus is the church, and that’s where salvation is found. Christianity has little do with their lives on a day to day, hour by hour basis. They are left to figure things out.
  4. Redemptive fiction: These books offer standard rebirth scenarios where a person accepts the Savior as their Lord. They give their life to serve Him and their lives are transformed—sometimes almost violently, often slowly and gently. They show a realistic look of the daily walk of faith for a believer. A clear Messiah is revealed who died for our sins. Through repentance and baptism, a person is forgiven and cleansed, beginning a new life in the Kingdom of God.
  5. Spirit-filled fiction: These books are extremely rare. They are focused upon characters with (or who develop) an intimate relationship with the Lord. They talk with Him all the time, day in and day out, hour by hour, minute by minute.

I essentially agree with Bergsland that stories contain various levels of Christian and spiritual content and that discerning that content is the task of the Christian reader. The difficulty is when we seek to baptize books as “Spirit-filled” or “Christian.”

Leland Ryken in his essay Thinking Christianly About Literature writes,

The usefulness of literature is not that it necessarily tells us the truth about an issue but rather that it serves as a catalyst to thinking about the great issues of life. If this is true, we can also see how misguided has been the frequent assumption that it is the task  of Christian literary criticism to show that works of literature are Christian. The task is rather to assess whether and to what degree works are Christian in their viewpoint. Christian enthusiasts for literature too often seek to baptize every work of literature that they love.

Grading systems like Bergsland’s are helpful in that they reinforce the believer’s need “to assess whether and to what degree works are Christian in their viewpoint.” However, the inherent danger in such systems is that they impose a set of expectations and theological specificity upon our stories which reduces discernment to the level of spiritual inventory. Such an approach inevitably leads the reviewer to conclude that “without Christ [a book] cannot be a Christian book.” Or as Ryken suggests, once our particular theological checklist is met, we are free to “baptize” those novels as Grade-A “Christian.”

As much as Christians may find such systems helpful, they are ultimately problematic. For once you begin superimposing a rigid doctrinal template over a piece of fiction, you inevitably force it to be something it can’t. Or shouldn’t.

I found a good example of these problematic elements when, as an example of a legit 4-5 star, “consciously redemptive” novel, Bergsland mentions the Chiveis Trilogy by Bryan Litfin. Having never heard of the series, it prompted a little research. Frankly, the synop sounded interesting. The series is published by a Christian publisher, BISACed as “Christian fantasy,” and blurbed by well-known believers. But a little digging revealed, once again, how theology, spiritual ratings systems, expectations, and differing grids of “spiritual discernment” throw monkey wrenches into any definitive sense of what makes a book “Christian.”

For example, one reviewer critiqued the Trilogy this way:

I really dislike the Roman Catholic undertones the book seems to be taking. Everything from crucifixes to the Pope and flagellation appears to be happening. My only hope is that in the third book that the darkness will be dispelled.

So does the presence of “crucifixes,” “flagellation,” and “Roman Catholic undertones” make a novel less “Christian”? Well, for some evangelical readers, it does. Take this reviewer who removes “Christian” points from the novel for its Catholic content:

The author’s portrayal of the rebirth of Christianity is cringeworthy. Do you really think if Christianity disappeared and reappeared 500 years later in a medieval version of earth (civilization has been setback by nuclear winter), that it would take shape and form like the Roman Catholic Church? Apparently this author, who also happens to be a professor at Moody Bible Institute thinks so… There’s even a pope, referred to as “the Papa” – which made me roll my eyes every time I read it.

Once such doctrinal particulars are demanded, the number of theological bones to pick can only multiply. As this reviewer noted:

I appreciated how God is present in the story. He isn’t a theory or idea but an “actor”. That is, he acts, he is active. But from a Christian perspective, how does Hebrews 1:1-3 apply in a world which has largely forgotten Christianity and has only recovered the Old Testament? Asked another way, will God reveal himself apart from Jesus Christ after the Incarnation?

Alternate universes, time travel and such, are typically thorny for Christian writers and readers (for example, take Tony Breeden’s The Limits of Time Travel from a Biblical Perspective ). But once you begin applying chapter and verse to a fantasy novel, methinks wonder is the first casualty. This reviewer digs deeper into the nuts and bolts of his theological concerns regarding Book One of the Chiveis Trilogy, The Sword:

I appreciate the author’s attempt represent God as He reveals himself in ordinary, everyday life without convenient miracles peppering the story, but he did this to the point where you almost feel like Deu’s [the Christian deity] lack of active intervention is unrealistic and weak. This seems strange, especially given that the priestess “sees” demons (under the influence of drugged wine) and actually gets “prophetic” messages from them which turn out to be true. Why does the author ascribe supernatural activity to the devil but not to God in this story? But while on the one hand God is portrayed as never acting in an unusual way, on the other hand, the characters are exaggerated caricatures and the plot is full of other fantastical, over-the-top twists and overly dramatic escapes. I feel like either Deu should have been represented with greater power or the rest of the book should have been more toned down to be consistent with how he was represented; as it is, very little of his glory and power shines through. If the author’s intent was to represent Deu’s power through his work in changing characters’ hearts and lives instead, this was woefully underrepresented. Teo and Ana, the two main characters, are already shown to be virtuous, courageous characters in the beginning of the book and don’t undergo much of a change when they convert other than changing loyalties from gods they didn’t really believe in to Deu. They are also the only ones who don’t deny Deu in the end of the book, and yet they seem to think that Deu will be understanding of the fact that his other followers did publicly deny him, which seems to go against what the Bible teaches in Matt. 10:32-33.

These are just a few of the theological hang-ups I had with “The Sword”. I found it rather disappointing as a Christian fiction/fantasy novel. I guess in the end I run into the age-old question of whether, as a Christian, it is even permissible to make God a character in a fiction or fantasy novel, however well or poorly written. After all, who can know the mind of God and attempt to predict how He would act in fictional situations? It’s a question I’ve never really found a satisfactory answer to, but books like this make me inclined to think it shouldn’t be done.

I must admit, this is the first time I’ve encountered a Christian reviewer who wondered if “it is even permissible to make God a character in a fiction or fantasy novel.” But, alas, once you suggest a spiritual rating system, it’s inevitable that the list of prohibitions and content restrictions only grows. Like the poor Pharisee who debates whether latching ones’ sandals on the Sabbath constitutes “work,” the “devout” Christian reviewer puzzles whether God is a legitimate character in fiction. It’s death by a thousand pinpricks. Only in this case, we justify each puncture on the grounds of “discernment.”

On the one hand, Bergsland sees the Chiveis Trilogy as an example of 4-5 star “redemptive,” “Spirit-filled” fiction. But apparently there’s other spiritual rating systems, some of which go a lot further. And therein lies part of the problem. There really is no definitive biblical system for rating the Christian-ness, the Spirit-Filled-ness, of a story. Sure, we are free to outline principles. But the moment that we turn art appreciation and cultural critique into a “system,” we’re in trouble. Spiritual systems eventually become Laws… in the worst sense of the word.

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The forthcoming documentary Batman & Jesus suggests as much — that Jesus Christ was little more than Superman or Captain America cloaked in historical garb. Blurb:

Batman & Jesus seeks to introduce the evidence both for and against a historical Jesus of Nazareth to wider audience using contemporary examples in pop culture to draw comparisons

 

Forget that historical evidence strongly suggests that Jesus was a real person who performed miracles (and didn’t have a wife). It doesn’t stop the Friendly Atheist from seeing comic books as further evidence of a meaningless, Superhero-deficient universe.

In his post Shouldn’t It Be Obvious That All Superheroes Are Fictional?, the Friendly Atheist writes,

If I told you there was a man with supernatural powers, who people looked to in times of need, who was thought of as a savior, who was immortalized in books and films, and who had scores of enemies, would you say this person was real or fictional?

Superman is fictional. Catwoman is fictional. The X-Men are fictional.

But when the superhero is Jesus, suddenly everyone thinks he’s real.

What the Friendly Atheist or the makers of this documentary seem to fail to address is why the human psyche constantly gravitates to and yearns for a Superhero.

Grant Morrison, DC Comics veteran, in his book “Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human” explains:

“Comic book narratives can serve as modern day parables… We live in the stories we tell ourselves. In a secular, scientific rational culture lacking in any convincing spiritual leadership, superhero stories speak loudly and boldly to our greatest fears, deepest longings, and highest aspirations. They’re not afraid to be hopeful, not embarrassed to be optimistic, and utterly fearless in the dark. They’re about as far from social realism as you can get, but the best superhero stories deal directly with mythic elements of human experience that we can all relate to, in ways that are imaginative, funny, and provocative. They exist to solve problems of all kinds and can always be counted on to find a way to save the day. At their best, they help us to confront and resolve even the deepest existential crises. We should listen to what they have to tell us.”

Morrison is not a Christian, yet acknowledges that “superhero stories speak loudly and boldly” to inherent spiritual, existential yearnings; “to our greatest fears, deepest longings, and highest aspirations.” But why?

As C. S. Lewis noted, hunger and thirst always corresponds to something — in that case, food and water. We don’t hunger for things that don’t existence. The same is true for metaphysical yearnings. Humanity’s constant hunger for a Superhero — one evidence of which are comic books and MCU films — is less proof that Jesus was a fictional Superhero and more evidence that we yearn for One. And as Morrison notes, this persistent yearning actually undermines the “secular, scientific rational culture” that atheists use to bludgeon our Superhero sensibilities.

Rather than comic books proving that Jesus is fictional, couldn’t humanity’s constant yearning for a Savior, for a Righteous King, for a Judge Who will set things right, for a Loving, All-Knowing, All-Powerful Superhero, actually be evidence that we intuitively know One is there? And have a need for rescue?

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On a podcast recently, I was asked how I deal with writer’s block. I felt a bit sniffy admitting I never have it. I felt even worse suggesting that for most writers, it’s a bit of a myth.

Of course, there’s lot of angles one could take on the topic. But, for me, it seems to boil down to two things — one left-brained and one right-brained.

Betty Edwards’ famous book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, contains a wonderful series of exercises for people who think they can’t draw. One of her assertions is that creativity is not something you’re born with, as most assume; rather, it is a learned skill. Or, to be more precise, it’s an unlearning skill. For example, one exercise she uses for the artistically challenged, is the upside-down drawing exercise. It goes like this:

Find a line drawing that you like. It can be the work of a master, a cartoon, anything.

Turn it upside down.

Now, without turning the page right-side up, draw what you see, trying to ignore the subject and focusing strictly on the lines, shades, spaces and proportions of the original.

So in other words, if you’re creatively constipated, turn things upside down.

Ms. Edward’s rationale is based upon brain research. The brain has two sides, and various commands and characteristics emanate from one side or the other. The left brain thinks in concrete, linear terms, while the right is conceptual and non-linear. Left-brainers are logical; right-brainers are intuitive. So creativity flows from right-brain activity. When you have a burst of ingenuity, when the lid of your mind’s eye is yanked open, or two mutually exclusive ideas suddenly join hands and waltz across the lawn of your imagination, it started in your right hemisphere.

One of the obvious characteristics of great writers is this ability to see things with new eyes — to turn the ordinary upside down. In brain parlance, it’s writing with the right side of the brain.

This ability to re-imagine the mundane, to reshuffle the deck of the ordinary, to part the veil of ho-hum that shrouds most modern novels, is essential for writers.

Donald Maass, in his excellent book. Writing the Breakout Novel, says this:

There certainly are no new plots. Not a one. There are also no settings that have not been used, and no professions that have not been given to protagonists. Although human nature may never change, our ways of looking at it will. To break out with familiar subject matter — and, really, it has all been written about before — it is essential to find a fresh angle.

To those of us with low-wattage mental light bulbs, these facts can be frustrating. Try as we might, we continue to regurgitate yesterday’s best sellers, inflate leaky plotlines and repackage another unwanted white elephant.

Ms. Edwards’ advice, I think, would be something like Turn it upside down.  Invert it. By doing the upside-down exercise, she suggests, “you’re disabling your left-brain, which can’t see or handle such abstractions, and allowing your right-brain to do all the work.” In theory, drawing upside-down pictures, disarms our normal mode of thinking and challenges us to see things differently — in abstraction — which is a right brain function.

I want to suggest that this drawing exercise is a template for “finding fresh angles.” It’s not a matter of seeing what no one has seen or doing something that has never been done, but looking at what is already there in a new way. If you’ve been called you to write or draw or carve or act, then everything you need to be more creative, more original, is already at your disposal. All you need to do is…turn it upside down.

If this is true, then you don’t need more ideas. There’s ideas, possibilities, all around you. You just need to flip them.

Inspiration is always closer than you think. It’s just outside your door or behind the couch. It across the street in the field with the boarded up water well. It’s on the front page of the newspaper. It’s at your school and arrived with the prof in a briefcase he leaned near a garden gnome at the library. It’s in the dusty wardrobe in the upstairs room. It’s in tonight’s meteor shower. It’s in the roadside near the railroad tracks on your way to work. It’s in the story your cousin used to tell you to stop you from crying. It’s on the other side of the looking glass.

Roger von Oech, author of A Whack on the Side of the Head, introduced the concept of soft thinking as a necessary ingredient in creativity. Whereas most academic thinking is ‘hard’, i.e. rigorous and focused, in order to be creative we need to switch to ‘soft thinking’. Soft thinking is more playful, spontaneous and much less concerned with finding the answer. It asks “what if” and isn’t afraid when the answer sounds absurd.

Soft thinking is where the what ifs? emanate.

Sometimes I think we try too hard to be creative. We sit at the keyboard straining to squeeze out that one novel nugget out of our constipated brainpan, only to wonder at the hapless turd that required so much energy.

But there’s this other thing, this left-brained side to writing and writer’s block. And this side involves energy and repetition and who-cares-if-you-don’t-feel-inspired resolve.

I think I learned this during my years in the ministry. See, I pastored a church for 11 years. For most of those years I preached every Sunday. I took preaching very seriously. I believed that boring people with The Greatest Story Ever Told was tantamount to sin. But teaching people who were jaded by television and films and the bombardment of professional advertisers wielding slick commercials with a spiritual message, was incredibly challenging. So I conjuring ways to engage short attention spans. This often involved telling stories rather than giving lectures, inductive rather than deductive approaches, and aiming for both hemispheres. Occasionally, I hit my target.

Point is: I did not have the luxury to not create simply because I didn’t feel inspired. My congregation was expecting a good sermon every week. They were paying me to show up and say something relevant and inspiring. I couldn’t show up in Sunday morning, shrug, and say, “Sorry. I didn’t feel inspired this week.”

In that sense, it’s like any other job or routine. You don’t have the luxury to skip you day job when you don’t feel “inspired,” do you?  You don’t have the luxury to not feed the kids dinner because you didn’t feel “inspired.” You don’t have the luxury to abstain from writing your thesis because you weren’t struck by lightning.

Yet many writers only give themselves permission to write when they feel creative.

That’s not how it works. Sometimes inspiration doesn’t arrive until you start writing. It’s like Elijah at the altar, dueling against the prophets of Baal. He prepared the alatr, stepped back, and prayed like crazy for fire from heaven. This was often my approach when preaching. Sometimes inspiration did not strike me until I reached the pulpit. I splayed the sacrifice and prepared the altar, stepped back and prayed for lightning. The same is true with inspiration. Sometimes, you need to simply go through the motions until lightning strikes.

Do you have the luxury to create just when you feel creative? Then the fowls of boredom will nest in your noodle.

No, I’m not suggesting we never take breaks or rest. I’m not suggesting that there aren’t seasons to our writing life. I’m saying that one of the best ways to avoid writer’s block is to sit yourself down in the chair and write whether you feel like it or not.

So there’s a couple things. In many ways I think writer’s block is a myth; it’s a monster we create, real only in the sense that it keeps us thinking “hard” and being lazy. Thus, learning to sit your ass at the keyboard and turn the world upside down is the best way to vanquish that wannabe beast.

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winterland-2aRight now, if you sign up for my newsletter you can also get a link for a free digital download of my novella “Winterland.” The novella is one of my personal faves, following the surreal journey of a woman into the soul of her dying mother. Here’s the synop:

Summoned into her dying mother’s coma, recovering addict Eunice Ames must traverse a surreal, apocalyptic dreamscape in search of three generational spirits who have imprisoned her mother’s soul.

Together with Joseph, a crippled drifter who serves as her guide, Eunice treks an abandoned highway strewn with debris from her mother’s “emotional” wars. Along the way, she encounters Mister Mordant, a perpetually whiny grub, Reverend Ash a fragile, supremely self-righteous minister, and Sybil, a beautiful sylph with a knack for deception. Eunice and Joseph endeavor to lead this peculiar brigade into the hell of her mother’s making, through the swamp of Mlaise and the volcanic plains of Cinder, to the Dark Throne where they were forged. Along the way, Eunice experiences, in awful living color, the forces that have shaped her mother’s descent into madness and disease.

Yet a more malevolent power conspires against Eunice. For not only is she forced to relive the psychological terrain of her own upbringing, she must now confront the darkness it has spawned… the one inside her. It seems Eunice has harbored horrors of her own; years of abuse, rejection, and generational sin have taken root. And no amount of psycho-babble and positive thinking can withstand the literal monster that is waiting at the end of this highway. Can Eunice destroy the spirits that have cursed her family and rescue her mother, or will the sun set on their hell forever?

The Wizard of Oz meets Dante’s Inferno in this novella (27,000 words), a dark adult fairy tale about finding faith, redemption, and confronting the monsters of our psyche.

As the release of my next novel, Saint Death, approaches, I’ll being doing some giveaways exclusively for subscribers. You can sign up for my newsletter HERE, or using the link on the sidebar. Thanks!

 

 

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The second installment in my Reagan Moon paranoir series is up for pre-order at Amazon. The novel releases July 5th and I’m thrilled about the book. Kirk Douponce did a fantastic cover design and the story contains some wonderful surprises for fans of Urban Fantasy and the Paranormal genres. Pre-ordering helps me, as an author, by giving the novel some sales punch upon release. So if you’ve thought about buying the book, please consider pre-ordering. Paperback pre-orders and other digital platform versions are forthcoming. You can check out the back cover blurb, as well as pre-order the novel, HERE.

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Amish Romance Recovery Network Helps Fiction Readers Cope with 21st Century

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“It started like most addictions,” Nancy (last name withheld) admitted. “Only, in this case, the pusher was my local Christian bookstore.” Apparently, looking for “escapist” reads can be dangerous in today’s world. Especially if you’re an evangelical Christian. For Nancy, escaping into the world of Amish fiction became an escape from reality. “At first,” she […]

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Are the Dead Aware of the Living?

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At that moment, I knew — although the word know seemed so feeble in describing the certainty I felt — that everything Ellie had said was true. My father had seen it too, this land just beyond the great river. I was here because of them. And others. Surrounded now by a great cloud of […]

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When is Fictional Magic Promoting the ‘Occult’?

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A while back, I received this letter from a pastor who follows my blog. At the time, he was unfamiliar with the debates inside Christian writing circles concerning speculative fiction, the use of tropes containing magic, and the characteristics of Christian fiction in general. That changed when he entered the ministry: I am a brand spanking […]

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Top 5 Clichés Christians Use About Their Writing

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This past weekend I was privileged to be part of the faculty for the Orange County Christian Writers Conference (OCCWC) 2016. I had a great time and met lots of cool people. Writers are odd enough, Christian writers even more so.  You see, Christian writers have their own cluster of cliches and secret ciphers known only to […]

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Christianity’s Internal and External Witness

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Christianity, unlike the Eastern religions I was weaned on as a young adult, appeals to and requires both physical and historical evidence — archaeological discoveries, geographical locations and recorded customs, real figures and events, written history, laws and instruction — as well as heart change, spiritual transformation, and personal revolution. The balance between those two — […]

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