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I’m thrilled to announce that my Urban Fantasy novel The Ghost Box is now available in print and Kindle at Amazon.

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Gods-gift-to-usThere is a scene in my first novel, The Resurrection, when my protagonist, the dim-witted but earnest Pastor Ian Clark, trashes something very important to him. It’s a plaque with the words Follow Your Dreams. The words were burned into the wooden plaque by his sister to commemorate Clark’s ordination into pastoral ministry. But after a failed marriage and a failed church — and his sister’s tragic death –  Clark’s “dreams” are shipwrecked. So he removed the plaque from the wall, carried it out back, and apologized to his sister as he tossed the memento into the trash can. Along with his other dreams.

The scene is blatantly symbolic. And very personal.

When the church I was pastoring disbanded back in 1997, numerous dreams went with it. My “call to the ministry” had come quickly, but prematurely. I was a talented guy, artistic, literary; but I’d squandered my gifts, meandering through various creative outlets without passion, persistence, or a sense of purpose. So when the opportunity came to help others grow spiritually, to develop as a teacher and spiritual mentor, to serve and inspire others, I saw God’s hand in it and responded.

Indeed, for a while the ministry fulfilled my yearning to create, to inspire, to grow. But the rigors of church life and my own sin and immaturity frayed the edges of inspiration. What had started as a “dream” got pummeled by reality until, after 11 years, it all just caved.

And like Pastor Ian Clark, I simply chucked it all.

A “dark night of the soul” followed. I was a failure. My dreams were just illusions. I was destined for mediocrity. After 3-4 years of wallowing and wasted time, writing rekindled that spark. It started small — a short story contest. An Honorable Mention. An unexpected offer to join an online writers group. And things sort of snowballed. The “dream” was rekindled.

Mind you, my “dream” was not to be a writer. Or an artist. Or a teacher. Or a pastor. My dream was just to use what God had given me; to not bury my talent. To reach as high as I possibly could in this life. My “dream” is to hear the Master say, on that final day, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

Shortly after I became a Christian (in 1980), I framed the saying pictured above.

What we are is God’s gift to us. What we make of ourselves, is our gift to God.

Pretty hokey, huh? I’d read it somewhere and was inspired enough by the sentiment to inscribe it for my own. I realize that the theology is a bit screwy. I mean, can we ever really make something of ourselves apart from God? But it was that idea of maximizing my talents, taking the “clay” that God had commissioned to me and molding it into something I — and HE — could be proud of.

And here’s the thing: Pursuing a career in writing can crush your dreams. The competition. The critique. The unfairness. The massive amounts of time you must invest to even get a sniff. And the rejection. It breaks my heart to hear writers give up on their “dreams” in frustration. Mind you, a career in writing isn’t for everyone. Perhaps being honest about your talents, or lack thereof, is a good thing that can help you discern where your real talents lie. Whatever the case — what hurts is the death of a dream.

Dreams, like flowers, are fragile and often must be crushed to release their scent.

Whatever your dream is, let me encourage you to keep at it. Sure, that could mean trashing one pursuit in favor of another. But in the process –  whether your dream is to be a writer, an artist, a pastor, a whatever — let me encourage you to aim higher.

Perhaps the best dreams are not those that rest in an accomplishment, achievement, or a career, but in the simple objective to use what God has given us to make something better of ourselves.

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When talking to Christian authors about their novels, I’ve recently begun by asking them to describe the content of their book in terms of explicit Gospel content. On a scale of 1 to10 — 10 being straight-forward, conspicuous lamb-1Christian themes and 1 being inconspicuous or non-existent biblical elements — where does the book fall?

It’s interesting to watch Christian authors mull that. Mainly because they realize the risk of ambiguity. The further one moves from explicit Gospel content, the less  genre readers may consider their novel “Christian.” Contemporary Christian fiction readers seem to be intolerant of a lower standard of symbology and allegory in order to confirm a much higher standard of theological clarity. They’d rather not be left guessing as to what something might mean.

Back in 2008, I posted an article Is Christian Horror Becoming a Trend? over at Novel Rocket. I was especially interested in something Tony Hines, author of The Falling Away, said in his comments. Tony was comparing ABA (general market) readers with CBA (Christian market) readers. He concluded,

…I do feel there’s a difference between ABA and CBA readers. And to be brutally honest, ABA readers are more sophisticated. I’m a little shocked when I see some reviews of my work on Christian book sites, with people decrying the lack of “Christian” content in a few of my works. I think, symbolically and metaphorically, the Christian content is rather obvious. Maybe a bit too obvious, as Publisher’s Weekly said of their review of my second book, “The Dead Whisper On.”

I do find it troubling that a fair amount of CBA readers (at least in my experience) have a hard time seeing symbolism; we should, after all, be BETTER about seeing these kinds of things since many of Jesus’s teachings were told in parables. (emphasis mine)

No doubt some could misinterpret this as suggesting that CBA readers are simple-minded, naive, or uneducated. I’m sure that’s not what Tony was implying. But how is it, in this case, that a secular review site (Publishers Weekly) picked up on the Christian symbology that some Christian readers missed?

Which brings me to one of the downsides of symbolism and allegory in Christian fiction:

Symbolism in Christian fiction is risky because it’s open to interpretation.

And if it’s open to interpretation, some could interpret it wrongly. Or maybe even miss the symbols altogether.

In one of his sessions at the 2010 ACFW Conference, keynote speaker and novelist Tim Downs used a wonderful illustration to describe the use of symbolism, metaphor, and allegory in Christian storytelling — an Easter egg hunt. For the the younger children, Downs said, we hide Easter eggs in open sight, so that they can be found easily. But for the older kids, we must be more “sophisticated” and cunning, go to greater lengths to actually hide the egg. Likewise, sometimes Christian writers must put their message in plain sight for the younger, less mature, reader. At other times, Christian writers must be more crafty about their message , thus inspiring a harder “search” from the more mature reader.

The downside is obvious — some Easter eggs can be so well hidden that they are never discovered.

In my last post, Christian Fiction, Evangelism, and Parabolic Storytelling, I discussed how Jesus altered His message to suit His audience.

  • To the multitudes, Jesus spoke in parables.
  • To His disciples, Jesus spoke more directly.

Jesus spoke in parables not to conceal the Truth, but to lure His listeners to think, “in order that they might find their way into the higher mystery.” The downside of this method is obvious, some will miss the message or misinterpret it. Which is why many Christian fiction writers opt for overt symbology: it limits interpretive wiggle room and guarantees a higher probability of theological clarity.

But there’s another downside to symbology and metaphor:

Using symbolism is risky because it trains readers to read in code.

Perhaps the worst part of writing fiction laden with symbols and allegory is the effect that reading such fiction has upon its readers. Like a literary version of “Where’s Waldo?” the reading experience is reduced to a search for “clues” rather than aesthetic enjoyment.

Are readers who are accustomed to looking for particular symbols in their stories more or less likely to be good readers, sophisticated readers, discerning readers?

Of course, every author has a worldview, agenda, or message they are (perhaps subconsciously) bringing to their stories. Some are more or less overt in revealing that “message.” However, Christian fiction is especially reliant upon symbolism to either communicate or cloak its message… depending upon the author’s audience and aim. As Jesus revealed in His use of parables, speaking in metaphor and symbol is a powerful way to get readers to think. In the case of the mainstream Christian audience, however, the use of symbology has a downside.

For like that young child, we’ve come to expect the Easter eggs be “hidden” in plain sight.

 

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There’s significant discussion among Christian novelists about the aim of storytelling. Should Christians create fiction…jesus-teaching-2

  1. to inspire and encourage fellow Christians?
  2. to sow seeds in non-believing readers?
  3. to simply entertain?
  4. a combination of all of the above?

Jesus’ teaching methods often come up in this regard. While Christ’s methods appeared to vary per audience — sometimes He was didactic, other times He was more ambiguous or elusive — His teaching was always rich with allegory, symbol, and metaphors.

The Gospel of Mark describes Jesus’ dual approach in regards to the peasant crowds and His own disciples:

He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything. — Mk. 4:34 NIV

The general idea being that Jesus’ teaching method differed from general, non-believing audience to insider, initiate audience– to the “crowd,” he spoke in parables; to “his own disciples,” he explained everything.

Some use this to approach to draw parallels regarding Christian fiction. They suggest that Christian fiction should be more didactic than parabolic; it should be aimed at “disciples” rather than the “crowds.” This isn’t necessarily to insinuate that Christian authors should not write for general audiences, but that when they do, their method should be more parabolic, using similes, metaphors, ambiguity, and allegory, rather than straight-forward proclamation of the Gospel.

However, this idea of Christian fiction as evangelism is not without its opponents.

Some suggest that Jesus used parables not as a way to illuminate truth to the unenlightened, but as a way to harden those not called by God. For example, notice this discussion at Goodreads on Christian Fiction’s role in evangelism. One commenter (Nathan) said this:

Some say that Jesus taught in parables, which is an example of using fiction to teach the gospel truths. But do you remember the reason He did so? He clearly told His closest disciples. It was so that those who had not been elected unto salvation before the foundation of the world, those NOT given to the Son by the Father, would NOT hear and obey the truth. Lest they be saved!

Interestingly, this opinion is not without biblical foundation.

In his classic, The Parables and Metaphors of Our Lord, British preacher and evangelist G. Campbell Morgan, tackles this apparent discrepancy: Did Jesus use parables to illuminate Truth to the spiritually hungry or harden the hearts of the unregenerate?

After His teaching of the multitudes, the Gospel of Mark notes Jesus’ follow-up:

When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,

“‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’” — Mk. 4:10-12 NIV

From this, some (perhaps correctly), interpret Jesus’ parabolic method as a means to further harden the hearts of the uninitiated. Parables were used to reinforce their unenlightened, unforgiven state.

Morgan challenges this interpretation, suggesting that Jesus’ use of parables was indeed a tactical approach.

“When [the multitudes'] hardness of heart made Him angry, then in a very different and enlarged form He began to use parables.” (pg. 14)

Morgan traces this “hardness of heart” to the previous chapter wherein Jesus sought to heal the man with the shriveled arm and was forthrightly challenged by the authorities.

He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts — Mk. 3:5

This stubbornness of heart and public resistance of Christ, according to Morgan, led to a change of approach. But is it reasonable to believe that the parabolic method was employed to prevent men from understanding and receiving God’s mercy? Morgan answers,

“That would surely be blasphemy, and would contradict the whole purpose of God in Christ, and of Christ in the world.” (pg. 14)

So Morgan digs deeper, looking at Mark’s account alongside Matthew’s.

“According to Matthew, the disciples had inquired the reason for speaking in parables. The Lord’s answer was that it was given to them to know the mysteries. He told His disciples that the difference in method was do to a difference in relationship. To those of His disciples who were obedient, who submitted to Him, the mysteries could be made known. To those without, those not yielded, and not obedient, those refusing and hardening the heart, the parabolic was the necessary method.

“Go on to verses twenty-one to twenty-five in this fourth chapter of Mark. He used the lamp as His illustration. This lamp is not put under the bushel, which would extinguish it. It is put on a stand. The parables therefore constituted a lamp, a lamp shining. It was not in order to hide things, but that the hidden things may be brought to light. These people could not, because of the attitude they had assumed, receive the mysteries, the profound things of the kingdom of God. His disciples could receive those mysteries; but to those without, the parable was the lamp.” (pg. 15, emphasis mine)

Morgan concludes,

“He gave them parabolic pictures so that they might inquire. The purpose of the story, the picture, was to lure them to think, in order that they might find their way into the higher mystery.” (pg. 16, emphasis mine)

Ones’ interpretation of the purpose of the parables will indeed affect how they answer the question of Christian fiction as evangelism. If the purpose of the parable is to harden the hearts of the stubborn and resistant, then (as commenter Nathan concludes in the comment thread I linked) Christian authors should avoid such an approach because we have no idea whom God has chosen. The far better approach, this interpretation would conclude, would be a more didactic, unambiguous presentation of the Gospel (think Jesus interpreting the parables to His disciples).

However, the Christian author who sees the purpose of the parabolic method as a way “to lure [the reader] to think, in order that they might find their way into the higher mystery,” ambiguity, allegory, symbolism, and metaphor are indeed powerful tools in our writing toolbox.

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In an odd twist to our tabloid-driven obsession with “celebrity deaths,” Lena Dunham admitted her own fixation upon mortality. Although hailed as “the voice of [her] generation” and a Glamour magazine Woman of the Year, in her new book Not That Kind of a Girl, the actress, screenwriter, humorist, and feminist firebrand fesses up to a painful, unfulfilled yearning — to “work the death thing out.”lenaDunham

While Dunham’s book is being criticized for far more scandalous revelations,  it is her ruminations about death that I find most fascinating.

In an exclusive excerpt, the Guardian revealed the extent of this 20-something’s preoccupation with dying. In typical Dunham fashion, she crudely muses about hypochondria, existentialism, and anal sex, on her way to working “the death thing” out.

I think a fair amount about the fact that we’re all going to die. It occurs to me at incredibly inopportune moments – I’ll be standing in a bar, having managed to get an attractive guy to laugh, and I’ll be laughing, too, and maybe dancing a little bit, and then everything goes slo-mo for a second and I’ll think: are these people aware that we’re all going to the same place in the end? I can slip back into conversation and tell myself that the flash of mortality awareness has enriched my experience, reminded me to just go for it in the giggling and hair-flipping and speaking-my-mind departments because… why the hell not?

It is rather comforting to know that even the rich and famous still get that “flash of mortality awareness.” Apparently no amount of wealth or applause can completely anesthetize  us against the inevitability of our own demise. In Dunham’s case, however, the specter of death seems to do little more than produce a sort of flippant moral abandon, reminding her “to just go for it in the giggling and hair-flipping and speaking-my-mind departments because… why the hell not?”

Why the hell not. Indeed.

While much of celebrity culture is doing their best to NOT think about the inevitable, Dunham deserves kudos for at least contemplating the D-word. However, if you’re looking for answers, some sort of deep, philosophical or spiritual truisms  to guide you through your own existential wrestling, Lena Dunham is the wrong sage to glean from.

Recounting her first really personally confrontation with death, that of her grandmother (Gram, she calls her), Dunham writes

My head throbbed with questions. Where is Gram? Is she conscious? Is she lonely? And what does this all mean for me?

The rest of the summer was characterised by a kind of hot terror, a lurking dread that cast a pallor over everything I did. Every ice pop I ate, every movie I watched, every poem I wrote was tinged with a sense of impending loss. Not of another loved one but of my own life. It could be tomorrow. It could be 80 years from tomorrow. But it was coming for us all, and I was no exception.

So how does one resolve the “hot terror” and “lurking dread” that death imposes. In Dunham’s case, it was her father’s rather vapid philosophizing.

Finally, one day, I couldn’t stand it any more: I walked into the kitchen, laid my head on the table, and asked my father, “How are we supposed to live every day if we know we’re going to die?” He looked at me, clearly pained by the dawning of my genetically predestined morbidity. He had been the same way as a kid. A day never went by when he didn’t think about his eventual demise. He sighed, leaned back in his chair, unable to conjure a comforting answer. “You just do.”

My father can get pretty existential. “You’re born alone and you die alone” is a favourite of his that I particularly hate. Ditto “Perhaps reality is just a chip implanted in all our brains.” He has a history of staring out into nature and asking, “How do we know this is actually here?” I guess I inherited it.

Nothing like resolving life’s greatest question with the assertion that “reality is just a chip implanted in all our brains.”

It’s no wonder that Dunham concludes,

“We talk about enlightened beings, what it would mean to transcend the human plane. ‘I want to be enlightened, but it also sounds boring,’ I tell [my father]. ‘So much of what I love – gossip and furniture and food and the internet – is really here, on Earth.’ Then I say something that would probably make the Buddha roll over in his grave: ‘I think I could be enlightened, but I’m not in the mood yet. I just want to work the death thing out.’”

It’s rather fascinating that someone who’s been “obsessed with death” since childhood reaches a conclusion that is so devoid of any real answer.

The Bible contains no such ambiguity or flippancy about death and the afterlife. “[P]eople are destined to die once,” wrote the author of Hebrews, “and after that to face judgment” (Heb. 9:27 NIV).

Death comes for us all. Even hipster celebrities. That “flash of mortality awareness” is God-given, a vital barometer in our search for Truth and Meaning. Unlike Lena Dunham’s “inherited” worldview, the Christian faith hinges upon One who “taste[d] death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9) and conquered death by rising from the grave. His authority is light years away from the crude, uninspired musings of  a rich, privileged, spokesperson for Planned Parenthood who is hoping to be “the voice of [her] generation.” And according to Him, we should definitely “work the death thing out.”

All joking aside.

 

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Christian Fiction’s Ideal Man (or the Holy Hunk)

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CAUTION: This post contains snark, sarcasm, innuendo, wisecracks, jests, crass stereotyping, and lots of playful, but not-so-subtle jabs. Okay?   It’s no secret that women drive the Christian fiction market. Polls like the following simply reveal what they want in their fiction — men. Swoon-worthy men. I must confess, I thought this was a parody […]

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Evangelicals and Extraterrestrials: Can They Coexist? — Pt. 2

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The doctrine of the Fall and, consequently, the Atonement, are potentially the biggest areas of incompatibility between belief in God and extraterrestrials. If one believes what the Bible teaches, that the human race is fallen and Jesus has died for our sins and been raised from the dead, then those beliefs have serious repercussions upon […]

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Evangelicals and Extraterrestrials: Can They Coexist? — Pt. 1

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“The discovery of life beyond Earth would be a triumph for science but might wreak havoc on certain religions.” That’s the estimate of Scientific American’s recent article, Did Jesus Save the Klingons? The piece is based on the new book Religions and Extraterrestrial Life: How Will We Deal with It? (Springer Praxis Books, 2014), by […]

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What Changes in the Christian Fiction Industry Mean for Indie Authors

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For the longest time, the Christian fiction industry seemed somewhat impervious to changes in publishing and the economy. For instance, back in June 2009, at the front-end of the recession, Christian Retailing reported: Defying current sales trends, Christian fiction continues to grow, offering a bright spot for retailers, publishers and readers in a bleak economy. […]

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Christian Worldview and Dystopia

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The Hunger Games has spawned numerous copycat novels and revived the dystopian genre. But while the YA dystopian bubble is sure to eventually burst, humanity’s nagging belief in societal collapse and impending apocalypse remains alive and well. Dystopian themes have been a part of our pop cultural landscape for a very long time. Stories about […]

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The Ugly Truth about Author Endorsements

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I recently spent twelve bucks on a book that I discarded about 50 pages in. In my opinion, I felt the book was poorly written. Frankly, I suspected this going in. So why did I spend twelve dollars on a book I knew was probably poorly written? CONFESSION: Because it was enthusiastically endorsed by a […]

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Review: “Renaissance” by Os Guinness

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Subtitled “The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times,” the prolific author, speaker, and social critic Os Guinness pulls no punches about the bleakness of the times we live in. In his latest book entitled Renaissance, writes that “…all civilizations, whatever their momentary grandeur, have an ultimate flimsiness that is paper thin and cannot […]

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