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Border Skirmish in Christian Fictionland

In this tumultuous political season, it’s fitting that other ideological wars are being waged. Last week, Becky Miller at Speculative Faith, in a post entitled How Do We Judge Fantasy?, linked to an emerging controversy regarding popular YA Christian Fantasy author Bryan Davis’ new book Eye of the Oracle (EotO) and some bloggers who questioned its “biblical compatibility”. The Speculative Faith site and its link to the original post have garnered oodles of interesting, sometimes heated, response.

For the points of contention and all the angles in-between, you’ll want to follow the links and spend time with the comments (and I really recommend you do). The gist of the dispute, at least at the beginning, had to do with Davis’ employment of pagan / mythological characters (like Lilith) in a Christian fantasy. Do we compromise biblical truth (and biblical history) by integrating un-historical events or non-biblical entities into our stories? Or does a Christian writer have “artistic freedom” — provided they don’t subvert biblical truth and/or history — to create speculative fictional scenarios? These were the kinds of questions being raised.

The discussion over there (as well as the rhetoric) has reminded me a lot of the Harry Potter debate. Whereas some Christians see the Potter series as harmless fantasy (even marginally thematically biblical), others view it as subtly corruptive, if not overtly evil. In the EotO debate, there’s a similar divide between those who see Davis’ book as truth-telling, powerful and life-changing, and those who see it as, at best, biblically misleading. The big difference between these controversies is that, unlike Potter, EotO is written squarely for the Christian market, with an unapologetic biblical theme.

So why the diversity of opinions among “Christian Fantasy” fans?

I have long contended that the term “Christian Fiction” is rather misleading and has created a subculture of readers who judge books, not by their literary value, but by their religious content. (For a more thorough discussion of this subject, see my series What is Christian Art?) As such, the “Christian” nature of said works are determined, not by the author and his or her intent, nor the quality of the work itself, but by a definitive biblical resonance — be it Christian characters, redemptive resolutions, moral purity or Scriptural harmony. Accordingly, fiction is only “Christian” if it passes these tests. As I wrote in that article:

I fear that we have collapsed the boundaries of Christian art so far, there’s no turning back. Unless there is “explicit Christian themes” and images or a “tightly controlled message,” the artist, no matter how Christian she is or how “fundamentally religious” her work, fall outside the pale of Christian art. What’s wrong with this picture? I can’t help but wonder how many great Christian writers, musicians and artists are not embraced by the “Christian subculture” simply because their work does not adhere to a predetermined template.

This border skirmish between Christian Fantasy fans is precisely over the “template” — the standard or grid — used to judge Christian Fiction.

Really, it’s inevitable that these internal feuds occur. Why? Because the very concept of “Christian Fiction” is ambiguous, if not biblically indefensible. As such, the “rule” for judging what Christian Fiction is, is totally generated by the advocates of Christian Fiction. So while Bryan Davis and the folks at SpecFaith are fighting to defend one plot of ground (artistic freedom perhaps), opponents of EotO are equally justified in defending another (biblical purity apparently). But because there is no obvious template (or biblical formula) for how we judge Christian Fiction and Fantasy, the combatants are free to craft their own based on their interpretations of Scripture and personal preferences.

Am I suggesting that Christian authors should be subject to no biblical standards? Absolutely not! General principles about truth-telling and God-honoring and commitment to excellence should apply to every Christian artist. However, this particular squabble is not over IF lines should be drawn, but WHERE. And therein lies the rub.

There simply is no clear-cut biblical litmus test for defining what Christian Fiction should be. Must it contain Christian characters? References to God? Redemptive resolutions? How overt must the themes and imagery be? Can Christian characters curse, drink wine, smoke cigarettes and moonlight as jazz guitarists at local pubs? And what freedom does the fantasy author have to re-imagine biblical events (like the Temptation in the Garden of Eden being re-staged by C.S. Lewis in Perelandra)? The answers to these questions have no chapter and verse (unless it’s in some publisher’s office). Of course, we should intuit our own answers based on study of the Scripture and using our God-given mental faculties. However, the result will always be — as it was in this debate — not IF, but WHERE the line is drawn. And that’s where we’re all free to differ.

For the record: I have not read Bryan Davis’ book but, if I understand the objections to it and correctly interpret his defenders, I would have no problem with Eye of the Oracle. My interest in this debate is not to pile on one side or the other, but to point out how the debate itself is fueled by the inherently muddled nature of the genre it defends, and the shortage of biblical imperatives to defend it. So perhaps it’s good that we Christians ask how to judge Christian Fiction? Me, I’m still asking “What is Christian Fiction”?

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{ 16 comments… add one }
  • Kaci February 15, 2008, 4:04 AM

    Heya. I was one of the defenders of Davis in that argument. Honestly, the deeper into this whole idea of Christian v. non-Christian fiction as genres, the more inclined I am to agree that “Christian fiction” is almost impossible to define. Honestly, it was blogs like this one that helped me see things that way.

  • Mike Duran February 15, 2008, 2:29 PM

    Hey Kaci! In that battle, I would definitely have sided with Davis. However, I see a potential danger in supporting either position, kind of like the “lesser of two evils” approach (not to infer that either party is evil, of course). Both sides defend “Christian Fiction” as a legitimate genre, nevertheless both are squabbling over its boundaries. If I were to draw lines, it would be to the far left (liberal wing) of both of them, making a far bigger tent for the Christian artist. I’m blessed that “blogs like this one” have brought some type of clarity to your thinking, and hope and pray it will, in the end, bring us closer to God and each other. Grace to you!

  • dayle February 15, 2008, 4:01 PM

    Instead of going through my normal rebuttal of your stance on this issue, let me try this a different way.

    Mike, you are doing exactly what you accuse others of. You want to define the boundaries your way. And, you want it all or nothing.

    What you fail to recognize is that you already have it your way, but you’re stuck on semantics.

    The bookstore is full of books written by Christians which didn’t have to ask the CBA establishment for permission nor guidelines. The world is your oyster, Mike. Take the pearl and ignore that squeaky wheel.

    In other words, the world is full of books written by Christians. But there is a Christian fiction audience which deserves their free market niche. So the term Christian fiction in that sense refers to the evangelical audience looking for a style of book that fits their lifestyle. You may scoff at thier insistence of vulgar free literature and books that point to Christ’s role in this life, but they are a legitimate market. But they are also the minority. Your section of the bookstore is huge and consists of Christians who write fiction with no boundaries but their own – such as Koontz, Grisham, etc.

    So, with all due respect,**(don’t you love when people say that and then give you no respect?)** you’re the one wanting to limit the options. Sort of like subtraction by addition.

    As it stands, both sides have their way and you have the advantage of the larger market.

    However, if you get your way, then those who depend on the “Christian fiction” section to deliver their style will lose out. Mixed in with the general fiction mega-section of the bookstore, Christian authors who target that niche will get lost and never sell anything.

    Note: If this comment was not combative enough, let me know. I’ll try harder next time. 🙂

  • Kaci February 15, 2008, 4:41 PM

    Mike, I agree. But it’s a bit like I told Mr. Davis via email and have said to other people in other settings as well: The fact that we wrestle is often good.

    I’d be concerned if we didn’t wrestle over how far is too far with fiction, as a whole. I’d be concerned if we didn’t wrestle over how involved in our private lives or on the universal scale our government should be. I’d be concerned if writers didn’t discuss what made something good or bad, appropriate or not — same with artists, musicians, etc, ad nauseum. I’d be concerned if younger generations didn’t haggle with older ones over theology.

    In a sense, they wind up complementing each other. Throw a man who refuses to flex or bend the rules in with a man who knows nothing of rules and in the end, provided they don’t kill each other, they wind up with a sum greater than their parts.

    The man who cannot abide vulgarity tempers the man who can. Him with no boundaries tempers the man with all boundaries.

    So I would say that the dialogue itself, the discussion, is good, provided it adds rather than subtracts, unifies rather than divides, if any of that makes sense.

    Anyway. Be blessed.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller February 15, 2008, 6:20 PM

    Mike, I don’t know as I’ve ever said this about one of your posts, but I’m disappointed. Since you made a point to your readers that they should follow the links and read the comments, I assumed you had. What you said about the Spec Faith discussion and Christian fiction doesn’t seem to bear that out.

    As I mentioned in one of the comments near the end and in the next post, the controversy over fictionalizing history does not belong to Christians alone. This quote from secular author Guy Gavriel Kay’s blog, Bright Weavings:

    The question – or one question – seems to me to be this: are there limits, or ought there to be limits, to what writers of fiction feel at liberty to do with real people and their lives? Does anything go

    That’s the nutshell of the discussion at Speculative Faith and in the end has nothing whatsoever to do with genre. Biblical fiction, historical fiction, contemporary fiction, fantasy—any of it can draw from or include real people. When that happens, what then can or can’t the author change? And are Biblical events “more protected” simply because they are in the Bible? Should characters drawn from apocryphal literature appear in the story where the Bible did not put them (in the case of Eye of the Oracle, on the ark)?

    Mike, I think this is a discussion that cuts across all of literature and I find it … well, as I said, disappointing that you used it to promote your ideas about Christian fiction.

    Becky

  • Mike Duran February 16, 2008, 1:03 AM

    Dayle, I appreciate your tone, brother. The problem is not that an evangelical audience is targeted with books that reflect their values. That’s terrific! The problem is when the Gospel message is defined (perhaps, “confined” is the better word) entirely to the representation of those values. In other words, Christian Fiction (as in “Christian” film / music / etc.) has come to mean safe, G-rated (OK, sometimes PG), inspirational, conservative, uplifting, theologically tight, and as you put it “vulgar free” fare. Furthermore, by nurturing the notion that art of any kind — fiction, painting, sculpting, composing, etc. — can be “Christian” is a misleading, if not intellectually slippery, proposition. The Gospel message and its Truth is far too big for a relatively small group of readers to define.

    As for me wanting “to define the boundaries [my] way,” that’s the point of my post. You have your boundaries. I have my boundaries. And CBA publishers have their boundaries. But what are the Bible’s boundaries for Christian Fiction and Fantasy? That, my friend, is the question we need to answer.

    Thanks, Dayle. And, no, you were “combative” enough. . .

  • Mike Duran February 16, 2008, 1:31 AM

    Hi Becky! Yes, I read the entire post and all the comments at the Capital G Geek and SpecFaith sites. (In fact, I printed a copy of the Spec Faith comments and read them again at work to make sure I had a handle on them.) Here, I just tried to summarize to get to my point. I apologize if you feel I didn’t do it justice — perhaps I should have spent more time articulating — but that’s why I forwarded readers to the other links.

    Sorry that you feel I was using the dialog over there to “promote [my] ideas about Christian fiction.” But I felt my observations were not directly pertinent to the discussion there (specifically because of the “historical” debate) and didn’t want to sidetrack that discussion with my own views about the “shortage of biblical imperatives to defend” Christian Fiction.

    Yes, the discussion about “fictionalizing history” cuts across all literature, and I agree it fascinating and relevant. But what struck me most about that discussion was not THAT issue; it was HOW the dialog was unfolding, and how someone as proven, as popular, as talented, and as biblically-grounded as Bryan Davis could be getting reamed by such accusations. It just reminded me about how tenuous the nature and boundaries of Christian Fiction really are, and the many different oars that are rowing in so many different directions.

    Grace to you, Becky!

  • dayle February 16, 2008, 3:48 AM

    Mike, I understand your fear of the pigeon-holed definition. But I don’t think the world looks at it that way.

    I truly believe that most book buyers see the “Christian fiction” sign and think “oh, that’s the books written for the evangelical market.”

    The only solution would be to call it the “G-rated novels written by a select group of Christian authors who chose to write in that category” section.

  • janet February 17, 2008, 2:46 AM

    I have to agree with Dayle here. Those Christian readers who WANT to read “clean” stories are consumers. They are entitled to have a few nice shelves of what they like. It’s America. We are free to write anything…excellently.. and it will find a home. If it doesn’t fit into the CBA, we are free to go to the “other side,” where we can be, “in the world but not of it.”

  • Mike Duran February 17, 2008, 12:58 PM

    The problem isn’t that some Christian readers want to read “clean stories,” but that CHRISTIAN FICTION HAS COME TO BE DEFINED AS CLEAN STORIES. What if I want to write “not-so-clean stories” and market them as Christian Fiction? Sorry bub, you’re assed out.

  • Nicole February 17, 2008, 3:50 PM

    Just from what I’ve read here, it doesn’t really sound like you read much from the CBA publishers, so I’m wondering if you are presenting the too “religious” for ABA publishers and too “unclean” for CBA publishers philosophy? Four of the five Tim Downs’ novels have no “Christian” message in them but are published by CBA publishers. Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers is about a prostitute who was raped continually as a child and had an “in house” abortion performed on her. Not exactly a “clean” story but one of the most powerful ever told and published by CBA. The “boundaries” have definitely stretched–you just have to know the houses who stretch them. Then you have to know how much you’re willing to compromise if necessary.

    There is always self-publishing if your ideals are uncompromising. I can personally guarantee there are now some outfits who produce books with quality equal to the commercial publishers (at least in appearance). Your own desire to market them as you will can now stand in your court.

  • Mike Duran February 18, 2008, 5:19 PM

    Nicole, while I don’t read a lot of CBA stuff, I do read some. I did read one of the books in the Bug Man series by Tim Downs. I liked it. Downs is a great writer. Problem is, while the books are published by a Christian publisher (Howard), they’re not viewed as Christian Fiction per se. Why? As you said, they “have no ‘Christian’ message.” The controversy regarding Bryan Davis’ book illustrates how difficult it is to define “the Christian message” when it comes to fiction. How much of the Gospel needs to be shared in order for a book to be Christian? What concepts / words / characters / plots would keep it from being Christian? These questions, for the most part, are unanswerable. While I do agree that the industry is changing, I’d still assert that the very concept of Christian Fiction carries inherent baggage and the seeds of its own limitations. Grace to you, Nicole!

  • Nicole February 18, 2008, 6:06 PM

    “While I do agree that the industry is changing, I’d still assert that the very concept of Christian Fiction carries inherent baggage and the seeds of its own limitations.”

    I would agree with this statement, Mike, but maybe in a more positive way. Christianity carries its own “baggage” and “limitations” to the world. We are separate, peculiar, and in context not “friends” with the world (referring to James 4:4).

    I think each writer who is a Christian has to determine his objective and preferred audience by the direction of our Lord. Then he has to follow that direction without compromise. Where that leads the individual writer will be as unique as the many stories He gives us to write. Publication is an extension but not a given. Are we as writers willing to travel the path God has for us regardless of where it leads? Some answer yes with their mouths but not their actions. It can be a battle to follow Him.

    I find the longer I continue along this writing path, the less I “revere” the rules, the definitions, the concrete assertions of the professionals, and all things associated with “The Craft”. I do it because the Lord designed it for this part of my life. Apart from Him, I can do nothing. That downsizes the importance of all man has to say about some of this stuff–to me, at least.

    Grace to you, Mike, for your deep thinking, your thoughtful posts and replies, your creative spirit.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller February 28, 2008, 3:56 AM

    Mike, I think this is a valuable discussion, but I still have a hard time with the fact that you’re continuing to use the comments about Bryan’s book to illustrate your points. You said in your last comment to Nicole The controversy regarding Bryan Davis’ book illustrates how difficult it is to define “the Christian message” when it comes to fiction. How much of the Gospel needs to be shared in order for a book to be Christian? What concepts / words / characters / plots would keep it from being Christian? These questions, for the most part, are unanswerable.

    In fact, the controversy regarding Bryan’s book does not illustrate anything whatsoever about Christian message. As I said earlier and in private emails, the discussion centered on the fictionalizing of Biblical accounts. How much can and should an author change?

    Bryan says he doesn’t change anything but fills in the blanks. My question is, if those blanks are filled in to distort the original, is that crossing a line we—any author writing about real people or events—should not cross? Or do we go the way of the Da Vinci code and let readers figure it out for themselves? And if they determine the line has been crossed and choose to blog about it, do we go to their site and ask them to take it down?

    These were the issues in the Spec Faith discussion, not the issues you raised here.

    Am I making a mountain out of a mole hill? I really don’t intend to. But I can’t help wondering if “what really was said, done” matters. Didn’t I just recently read something about historical revisionism—in some blog, I think it was. One called Decompose. 😉

    Becky

  • Mike Duran February 29, 2008, 2:31 PM

    Hey Becky! I agree that this is a valuable discussion. But I’m afraid I can’t agree that, “… the controversy regarding Bryan’s book does not illustrate anything whatsoever about Christian message. . . [but] on the fictionalizing of Biblical accounts. How much can and should an author change?”

    I equate “biblical accounts” and “Christian message” as nearly the same thing. Biblical accounts are part of the Christian message, informing our view of God, nature and Man. The Gospel message is rooted entirely in historical facts: Jesus lived, died and rose again are not just theories. Yet, while Scripture is the final rule of “faith and practice” for Christians, it is not as cut and dried (at least, to me) how that fact applies to the creation of fictional scenarios.

    There is some sense that we should ponder the “adding to / subtracting from” concerns raised by Davis’ dissenters. Nevertheless, and this is the point of my post, this is where the discussion veers from the liberties of a “fiction writer” to the liberties of a “Christian Fiction” writer — two very different things in my mind. The primary concerns of Davis’ dissenters have to do with both a “biblical account” and what they view as the limits and liberties of a Christian writer in fictionalizing biblical accounts. Not only do they see themselves as defending the biblical record, THEY HAVE INTERPRETED SCRIPTURE IN SUCH A WAY AS TO MAKE THEMSELVES ARBITERS OF CHRISTIAN FICTION. Their understanding of the Bible informs how they read and interpret Christian Fiction, and what they expect of Christian writers. They have not arrived at their position through generic debates about historical revisionism, BUT THROUGH THEIR UNDERSTANDING OF SCRIPTURE. In my mind, this is why there is no consensus among Christian Fiction writers and readers: We all have different perspectives about how the Bible relates to storytelling and storytellers, specifically Christian ones.

    To include this discussion in a broader discussion of fictional / historical revisionism sidesteps the massive concerns (baggage?) that Christian authors bring to the “fiction table.” I get the sense this is where you want the discussion to go because it unloads the unique, potentially divisive, and more stringent demands generated by the genre.

    Gosh, can this comment get any longer? Yes it can. . .

    True, I recently addressed (and decried) historical revisionism in a piece entitled Hits and Myths. But the big difference between my tolerance for historical revisionism in “fictional” as opposed to “academic” pieces, is precisely because ONE IS PRESENTED AS FACT, AND THE OTHER FICTION. When historical revision is presented AS FACT, i.e., Winston Churchill did not exist, this is problematic — especially when it’s done by historians and academics. This is a very important point, Becky. If a fiction writer wants to write a story about “The Myth of Winston Churchill,” more power to him. The truth is, logic, evidence and history has rightly convinced us otherwise.

    As a reader of fiction, I enjoy stories that manipulate our sense of reality and creatively work the reader’s worldview. Perhaps this is the power of storytelling. Every year I read The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, edited by Datlow and Link. One of the best stories I’ve recently read was from Richard Mueller, entitled And the Sea Shall Give Up Its Dead (which you can read on Google Books). It’s premise: The Nazis defeated the Allied forces and patrol the oceans in “death ships,” submergable execution-type vessels. No doubt, some could rightly argue that Mueller is messing with something he shouldn’t, an important, even sacred, aspect of world history. Me? I think it’s fascinating fiction. . . fascinating because we know it didn’t happen.

    So, to answer your question — “Does anything go in fiction?” — It depends on who’s writing and reading it.

    At this point, here’d be my bottom line (maybe, more accurately, an evolving line): If the supremacy of Scripture and the validity of historical biblical events is not being ultimately undermined by the Christian author, I would allow her creative license. Of course, this may or may not be the view of readers of Christian Fiction, which again buttresses the point of my original post.

    Fun discussion, Becky! Love to talk more about it. Grace to you!

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