Shooting the (Fictional) Messenger

by Mike Duran · 57 comments

So I pitched my current project to five editors at the ACFW conference. Four of them asked one particular question about the story, a question that I wasn’t fully prepared for. Before I tell you what their question was, take a look at the One Sheet I used at the conference (<– a screen capture) and see if you can anticipate what their question was.

Got it?

Okay. The question asked by all four Christian editors was about… ghosts.

Question: What about ghosts should provoke such a response from four Christian editors, all of whom were seeking Speculative Fiction?

Well, for starters, the word “ghost” is prominent in the title. Also, I threw around the term “paranormal elements” during my pitches quite a bit. But if there was one reason for their shared “concern” about ghosts, it was theological. Apparently, ghosts in Christian Fiction are the next new frontier. Or another boogey man. The fact that I’ve been down this path before and written about it (both in Another Perspective on Ghosts and a companion Afterword in The Resurrection), allowed for a semi-coherent response. I rattled off some reasons why 1.) The Bible is not specific about the nature of ghosts and 2.) My story is… fantasy. As in Urban Fantasy.

It didn’t seem to alleviate their concerns.

I was thinking about this when I read Nikole Hahn’s recent review of my latest novel, The Telling. Nikole’s review is part of the CSFF Blog Tour currently featuring my novel.  (Shout out to Becky Miller for doing such a great job on this.) Anyway, Nikole was troubled by some of the book’s theological — or skewed theological — elements.

I gave the novel four stars for great story telling, but struggled justifying a five because of the realistic use of scripture in a false prophecy that I have never read yet in a novel. In the past, novels have explored theologies in fiction, but this mix of the occult, new age, and scripture felt new to me. Would I read this again?

I don’t know.

I really appreciate Nikole’s honesty. And despite her concerns, her review is actually pretty good. She’s right about the strange fictional brew I concocted in The Telling. Part quantum theory, Celtic folklore, angelology, and esotericism. I threw the kitchen sink at this. Even tried to spin a fictional motif in a new direction. Either way, it’s definitely an amalgam of fictional and non-fictional elements. Evil and good exist side-by-side in The Telling, as does good and bad beliefs.

I just tried to leave the reader to decide which was which. And I think that’s part of the reason for responses like Nikole’s.

She’s not alone. Not long ago I Tweeted the following and received a surprise response from one of my all-time favorite spec Christian authors.

Apparently, Ms. Lee sympathizes with us wackos.

I’ve written a lot on this subject, and realize it’s part of a much bigger, very important discussion Christian writers and readers should have. Nevertheless, I’m coming to believe that we demand too much theology from our fiction.

Now, anyone who knows me or reads this blog regularly knows how much I value sound doctrine and squawk about its compromise. Readers like Nikole should be applauded. She’s in a much better place, I think, than someone who doesn’t give a rip about the worldview or subtle messages espoused in the novels she reads. However, when it comes to fiction — especially speculative fiction — we tend to overplay the “sound theology” card.

The result is similar to the response I’ve received from some concerning my novel: Good story, wacko theology.

Which is why I really appreciated how Sally Apokedak distinguished between those elements — theology and fiction — in her review of The Telling:

I want to say something about the theology in the book, because another reviewer said it was whacked out. I didn’t see much theology, really. The people weren’t praying to God and God wasn’t answering, and I think the author did that right. He wasn’t putting words in God’s mouth.

This book is speculative–fantasy. I don’t want to give spoilers, but if you approach this book looking for spiritual warfare that looks like real-world spiritual warfare, you’ll be disappointed. The warfare here was for Zeph’s faith, I thought. The demons weren’t real. The horror story was just the vehicle that carried the message, not the message itself. (emphasis mine)

Yes! Yes! Yes!

I realize that some attempt to parse this by distinguishing between the type of fictional settings one’s story exists in. You know, in fairy land I am free to create all kinds of fanciful fauna. But if my setting is remotely non-fairy (anything historical or contemporary), the fiction rules change.


If what Sally observes is true, that monsters and angels and shapeshifters and wayward prophets are “just the vehicle [to carry] the message, not the message itself,” then why do we worry so much over the fictional messenger? In this sense, the issue in Christian fiction — especially speculative Christian fiction — is not whether ghosts, elves, unicorns, vampires, or dragons are appropriate archetypes, but whether or not their “message” is of the biblical sorts. (And in the event you’re wondering if a ghost can really have a “biblical message,” please reference the account of the prophet Samuel’s summoning in I Sam. 18.)

Demonizing ghosts (pun intended), especially fictional ones, just because we don’t believe in them, is akin to disowning John 3:16 because because some nutjob with rainbow hair shoves a placard with the verse in your face. Messengers (real or fictional) don’t always do justice to their message. I mean, was it any less God speaking to Balaam because He used a jackass as the messenger?

One of the messages I hope to convey with The Telling (I use this term “message” lightly), is that come hell or high water, abusive childhoods, bad role models, wicked stepmothers, AWOL fathers, cryptic governments experiments, and dark angels, God’s gifts and callings are irrevocable,

That’s good theology, don’t you think?

Johne Cook September 26, 2012 at 7:44 AM

I’ve been calling you a trailblazer for awhile. I think the term is a trifle too soft for what you’re actually doing here – you’re kicking the darkness until it bleeds daylight.

Keep kickin’.

Melissa Ortega September 26, 2012 at 9:42 AM

Johne Cook is awesome. And if he tells you to keep kickin, you better do it. ; )

Lynette Sowell September 26, 2012 at 7:49 AM

You mean, sometimes, it’s JUST a story? Not doctrine.

Wow. Who’da thunk it.

Michael Snyder September 26, 2012 at 7:57 AM

First, kudos to John for what may be the best written blog comment ever! I’ll be pondering kicking darkness and bleeding light all day…

Great points all around, Mike. I read more literary than spec fiction. And when it’s done well, every character in the story is a kind of “ghost.” They exist in our imaginations. We sense, more than see, them. And they haunt both our waking and sleeping. And yes, they are the primary vehicle for the story, regardless of the author’s worldview. So who cares if it’s an Amish wife, a preteen sorcerer, a poltergeist, a suicidal janitor, a talking donkey (anyone else hear Eddie Murphey’s voice when they read that Bible story?), a detective, or whomever? Not me.

But I’m no gatekeeper. And I buy my books one at a time. So proceed with caution, Mike.

Christian September 26, 2012 at 8:01 AM

Mike, I want to read your new book right now!

Cindy McCord September 26, 2012 at 8:45 AM

Personally, I don’t select the Christian fiction books I read based on what theology I might find in them. Non-fiction on the other hand, I would. I select books that draw my attention based on the storyline,whether I find it interesting or not. I want to be drawn into the story and let my imagination go along with the world that the writer is creating.

Your storyline for this book would catch my attention and make me want to try it. I will admit though that it sounds like a lot going on and that it might be confusing to keep up with but that hasn’t stopped me before.

Kevin Lucia September 26, 2012 at 1:56 PM

“we demand too much theology from our fiction.”


“Non-fiction on the other hand, I would. ”

What’s ironic, I think, is how worked up folks get over proper theology in an imagined work of FICTION, and how lax they are on soft-soap, lovey-dove “feel good” devotionals who don’t have sound theology at all….

Johne Cook September 26, 2012 at 1:59 PM

Like / Plus 1 / Retweet

Melissa Ortega September 26, 2012 at 2:26 PM


Lyn Perry September 26, 2012 at 4:10 PM

This is why I don’t think there is such a thing as Christian fiction. It’s a nonsensical term. One can’t turn Christian into an adjective. I’ll have to do a post on this to explain my position, but yeah, there it is.

Alan O September 26, 2012 at 10:01 AM

(However, when it comes to fiction — especially speculative fiction — we tend to overplay the “sound theology” card.)

Yep. As a reader, if I want rigorous theology (meaning: something solid to base my real-life beliefs on), I’ll look for it in the Non-Fiction shelves. But when I pick up a fiction title, I make a conscious decision to dial-down that inner theologian. If it’s a “Christian” novel, I’ll expect some Mere Christianity basics (e.g., God is one of the good guys); but beyond that, I extend the author a wide latitude when it comes to the details.

Why? Because I’m perfectly willing to suspend my disbelief long enough to enjoy your story world, but I’m not willing to change my real world convictions on account of your fantasy (no matter how compelling).

I find myself a little concerned when I hear about people coming to Christ through reading (for instance) Left Behind…for the same reasons I wince when I hear people who have *lost* belief through reading The DaVinci Code.

When it comes to real beliefs, fiction should be, at best, a springboard to encourage further study and exploration of the evidence.

Marion September 26, 2012 at 5:05 PM

This comment from Alan O:

“When it comes to real beliefs, fiction should be, at best, a springboard to encourage further study and exploration of the evidence.”

Somehow that gets overlooked or ignored in reading Christian fiction.

Thanks Alan for writing that sentence.


Melissa Ortega September 26, 2012 at 10:10 AM

Firstoff, I know I want to read The Ghost Box because it sounds insanely interesting. Second, I want to read The Ghost Box because I hope what I’m writing isn’t anything like it – or at least too much like it. Thirdly, now I’m extra excited about picking up my copy of The Telling this week just to find out how whacked it is. I was planning to do this anyway but after seeing “part quantum theory, Celtic folklore, angelology, and esotericism” I sort of had a mini-heart attack – like the kind I get from drinking caramel lattes and eating candy bars at the same time. It’s always nice to find people who read the same books at night and ask the same weird questions about the universe – finding them in a Christian circle is even nicer. I must be pretty whacked myself, as is evidenced by the fact that everything in that list could be tagged to my current WIP (again, I suddenly feel less ALONE). Finally, your reviewer Sally’s phrase “He wasn’t putting words into God’s mouth” as evidentiary support of your novels theological acceptableness pretty much indicates to me that I’M DEAD…cuz that’s exactly what I’m doing.

Even then…I haven’t had a freakout moment from a single beta reader yet…so, even then, even when writing words and having God say them (and we can all think of films/books we love that do this) can be okay, even if it’s super scary.

The constant terror for me in writing something “whacked” is that I know deep down that my book can be the most innocent thing on earth and a human mind can twist it into something its not. The only way I was able to let go of this was to first realize that if I’m obeying the Spirit when I write, then whatever happens is OK. Period. That was a total of three periods in case no one noticed. Second, I had to be reminded that even the Bible has been twisted to support sinful behavior/belief, SO, if the Bible itself can’t escape this misuse, then its safe to say mine won’t. It just won’t. I mean, if Mother Goose can incite rebellion, who can write “safe?” So if I can’t possibly weed every single thing out of a story that might hypothetically be misunderstood/misued, etc., then I’m free. Free to trust the Spirit and just write what scares me.

I have however, considered disclaimers. Something like. “Remember. This didn’t happen except in the author’s head. And now yours.” Think that would work?

I sincerely hope to see Ghost Box in print! And I’ve already posted this to my writing group who discussed this hot topic of ghosts in Christian fic just a couple of months ago. I’m also curious to know if this is how you typically shop out your novels – at a conference.

Melissa Ortega September 26, 2012 at 10:12 AM

BTW – our discussion of ghosts led immediately to The Great Divorce, a Christian classic entirely populated by ghosts. I would be curious to know if that book could ever get published in current industry circles if it were brand new.

D.M. Dutcher September 27, 2012 at 3:13 AM

The Great Divorce isn’t about ghosts, it’s about the damned and the saved, and probably wouldn’t get published. If you think ghosts are controversial, the framework that the saved dead can meet the unsaved dead if the unsaved choose to visit them, and can be redeemed after death is one heck of a controversial idea. It was Lewis’s love letter to George MacDonald and his universalism, and MacDonald himself would be unpublishable today I think. Well, at least in the Christian market.

Melissa Ortega September 27, 2012 at 6:44 AM

Well, it isn’t focused on ghosts, but the characters, including the main character are called ghosts in the book. I have no issue with the type of “ghosts” they are, but there’s that flare word. The concept of the purgatory depicted is still misunderstood by a lot of readers – even though the last few pages of the book explain everything. I think you’re right in saying that it wouldn’t be published. That’s my opinion, too. And it’s sad that it wouldn’t. I have bought 14 copies of that book in the last 2 years and still don’t own one for myself. I keep giving it away! As for it being a love letter to MacDonald – I think the scenes he writes are a personal reckoning between himself and that author (and ultimately how Lewis parted with him on universalism) but that the whole story points to a wide array of authors Lewis read: Dante, Blake, Bunyan. They all make an appearance.

His books had layers and layers and layers of literary and Biblical allusion (or is it illusion?), and that’s why I love them. But the majority of modern Christian readers I meet don’t see past the first layer of what they’re reading – even in the Bible. It breaks my heart, and I have to wonder how we got from MacDonald and Lewis and Chesterton and Tolkien to where we are now. How did we move from meaty literature to milk? My only conclusion time and again is that a Christian “market” or label was created. Before that, Christian writers just had to write alongside everyone else. Now, they have to meet criteria. Critteria. Scary word. It’s a lot to keep in mind while writing a story – it’s a lot to have to keep in mind while attempting to remain one’s creative self.

Katherine Coble September 26, 2012 at 10:15 AM

What is discussed here on this blog is fine and trailblazing and even if I don’t agree with it there is merit to discussion.

But if you are a publisher investing time, effort and manhours into this book you do not want to lose money paying somebody to answer phone calls, emails and letters about how your entire company is Evil because you now have books about talking to the dead. (See scripture references below). I’d turn your book down instantly, just at the sight of the word “medium”. Because how ever much money we would make on this book would get swallowed by upstaffing our customer service department.

So is it right to have a book that deals with this? I’m not sure. I think it doesn’t matter in the general market but that it probably still should matter in the Christian one. But I don’t know. I do know that it is on exceptionally dangerous ground.


Leviticus 19:31, “Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them. I am the LORD your God.”

Leviticus 20:6, “I will set my face against the person who turns to mediums and spiritists to prostitute himself by following them, and I will cut him off from his people.”

Deuteronomy 18:10-12 “Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD, and because of these detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you.”

1 Chronicles 10:13-14 “Saul died because he was unfaithful to the LORD; he did not keep the word of the LORD and even consulted a medium for guidance, and did not inquire of the LORD. So the LORD put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse.”

Mike Duran September 26, 2012 at 11:01 AM

Yes, I’m familiar with the Biblical prohibitions. Do they change if my protag is not quite Christian. If he is an investigative reporter seeking to debunk mediums? Or if he’s not even fully human?

Katherine Coble September 27, 2012 at 9:51 AM

My point isn’t to weigh in on what I think of the theology. What I think doesnt matter. I’m not a publisher considering this pitch.

A publisher considering your pitch for the CBA has to think not only about the merits of the story but also how the book will affect their business. And believe me when I say that I KNOW there are middle aged women who get in a tizzy over stuff on LifeWay’s shelves and then make disgruntled contact with the publishers.

R. L. Copple September 26, 2012 at 11:31 AM

Jesus is then guilty for talking with Moses and Elijah. Maybe those verses are more narrow than we are using them.

Melissa Ortega September 26, 2012 at 12:08 PM

Except Jesus didn’t use a medium. He didn’t need to and humans would – and that’s a gamble. However, I think a character who is “not fully human” would (possibly) be free from laws created specifically for humans.

R. L. Copple September 26, 2012 at 7:12 PM

Exactly my point, Melissa. Jesus didn’t use a medium and that’s what those laws were against, was contacting the dead through mediums and such. However, it is not a given that humans would have to use a medium. God could do it just as He did for this situation.

But I would disagree, Jesus was also fully human, and it would have been hypocritical of Him to talk to the “dead” (He said they aren’t really dead too, existing in a spiritual dimension…ghosts? God is the God of the living, not the dead.) if that broad of an application was meant to be applied to those prohibitions.

Melissa Ortega September 27, 2012 at 6:52 AM

The prohibitions seem more concerned with the medium for talking to the dead than actually conversing with the dead. I have always assumed the danger God was protecting us from wasn’t actually communicating with the dead but with things disguised as the dead. We would have very little ability to discern the actuality of whoever or whatever we contact. It is the attempt to contact the dead that seems the greater danger.

Jesus could whip to the top of a mountain and talk with one dead and one undead (Hey! I got to use “undead” in a sentence!) because He did not have this malfunction.

But the dead themselves have communicated with humans before in Christian story – they took a walk around Jerusalem just after Jesus gave up His own ghost and then on up to heaven. They must have been noticed or else it wouldn’t have been written down, no would it? And the rich man (birthplace of Dicken’s Marley?) was only refused the chance to warn his family of his terrible afterlife he experienced not because the dead shouldn’t speak to the living but because his efforts would be in vain.

Johne Cook September 26, 2012 at 1:26 PM

What if the Publisher / Editor is secular instead of CBA? Tim Powers seems to have none of the these problems and his stuff is all over the map. This is considered ‘glorious’ and ‘fantastic’ not ‘heretical’ or ‘dangerous.’

Johne Cook September 26, 2012 at 1:28 PM

Typo, followed by a double-post. Whee!

Johne Cook September 26, 2012 at 1:27 PM

What if the Publisher / Editor is secular instead of CBA? Tim Powers seems to have none of these problems and his stuff is all over the map. This is considered ‘glorious’ and ‘fantastic’ not ‘heretical’ or ‘dangerous.’

Katherine Coble September 27, 2012 at 9:47 AM

If the publisher is secular, they aren’t gonna care, nor should they. But Mike was specifically talking about shopping this to CBA. I’m just telling him what the editors are thinking.

Kat Heckenbach September 26, 2012 at 10:33 AM

“Demonizing ghosts (pun intended), especially fictional ones, just because we don’t believe in them…”

“And in the event you’re wondering if a ghost can really have a “biblical message,” please reference the account of the prophet Samuel’s summoning in I Sam. 18.”

So, you’re saying we don’t believe in them but the Bible says they’re real?

Not pickin’ on ya, Mike, but I think that kind of encapsulates why ghosts are “different” from things like vampires in people’s minds. Ghosts are something people DO believe in, and yet don’t believe in at the same time. We believe in souls, but can we deal with disembodied ones?

Mike Duran September 26, 2012 at 11:10 AM

Ghosts definitely ARE of another order. But does that render them fictionally untouchable? Poor old Jacob Marley…

Kat Heckenbach September 26, 2012 at 11:14 AM

You know I don’t think so! I’m just hypothesizing about why you might be getting questioned, why it’s one of those areas that seems to freak people out.

Jill September 26, 2012 at 11:33 AM

I don’t understand the reverse, that all is spiritually clean so long as it’s hidden in a fantasy world. And I also agree with Katherine’s comment above. Ghosts and mediums are iffy. However, I also concur with Sally’s assessment of The Telling–I view it as a spiritual analogy, primarily for Zeph, but also as an extension of humanity’s spiritual state. Also, the thing about the ghost in The Resurrection is that God uses this boy’s ghost to pass on a message, but you never go so far as to call good evil, or evil good. If you begin to do that, I will begin to like your books a whole lot less.

Johne Cook September 26, 2012 at 1:44 PM

“I don’t understand the reverse, that all is spiritually clean so long as it’s hidden in a fantasy world.”

What is more dangerous, a picture of a sparking downed electrical wire or a sparking downed electrical wire? We had this discussion with regard to the ‘magic’ in arryHay otterPay. To my view, fantasy magic is a mechanism for telling a story and not the sort of thing prohibited in scripture. Same thing here. This is the wonder of fiction – it gives us the freedom to dally about with fantastic ideas without having to conform to strict spiritual fact.

To put it another way, I read Frank Peretti’s angel warfare novels as fiction and not Theology. Same thing here.

Jill September 26, 2012 at 4:16 PM

I have a hard time believing that words don’t carry spiritual weight, or that images don’t either. What’s the point of an image displaying a sparking downed electrical wire? It’s informational. It serves as a warning. It represents truth, especially if it’s accompanied by a red line or the word “Danger!” What if the image was of three children happily playing with the sparking downed electrical wire and not getting hurt at all? That’s a lie. It might be comedy–it might not be nefarious, but, then again, who knows? Magic in fiction is not inherently wrong. But it could certainly speak falsehoods and be spiritually unclean. Nobody is going to convince me that words and stories aren’t powerful–and, trust me, many have tried. I just don’t buy it. If words were so impotent, why would we have the drive to write at all?

Melissa Ortega September 27, 2012 at 7:02 AM

I have to agree with this. Someone – some body who I can’t seem to find for anything – once said that every book is a sermon. Hence, I sort of read every book, secular or Christian, as (ultimately) a book of theology. Whatever a person thinks about God (good or bad, right or wrong) pretty much births what he thinks about everything else. If I’m aware of that up front, then I’m more guarded while reading. Christian fiction is unique (or says it is) in that it announces by its own label that it is not just fiction but exists to teach us truths about God – whereas secular fiction may or may not do the same, but nearly always teaches us what the author thinks about God. In that way, I think a secular label is safer because it doesn’t make that sort of haughty declaration of being Scripturally authoritative or accurate up front – it’s just a human talking. Once we adopt the “Little Christ writing” label, there’s a different weight – and there probably should be. Which is why I think that maybe it shouldn’t exist. Maybe. Perhaps. Possibly. I’m not sure. *sigh*

Johne Cook September 27, 2012 at 7:41 AM

I’m the original ‘words have meaning’ guy, but I’m also a pragmatist. There is an answer here, and it’s apparent: an actual downed wire is more dangerous than the picture of the downed wire, and the test is this – when you grab one, you have a handful of paper with an image on it, when you grab the other, you immediately meet your Maker.

To bring this back to the topic, a book that misleads children to believe dabbling in the occult in real life is fun and free of consequence is far worse than a fantasy story which depicts children employing a mechanism of power in the framework of that invented world and has no correlation with the real world we inhabit as part of God’s Creation. In my opinion, the power in the second situation occurs in the art of things, the ethical choices and consequences of the characters in the story and how that relates to ethical choices we make in our own lives, and not the mechanics of the fantasy power. That’s what I think is transcendent, truth that reaches out from story to life.

Jill September 27, 2012 at 8:55 AM

Okay, so now you’re agreeing with me, but you’re setting your own rules and boundaries for what is acceptable in fiction and what isn’t. And that’s fine. I do the same thing, and I certainly don’t expect others to follow my convictions. It’s the denial of the power of story that bothers me. For an FYI, I don’t see much difference in telling a story in a fantasy world vs a real world setting. The fantasy setting is simply more subtle in its influence.

Jill September 27, 2012 at 9:17 AM

And, also, I wanted to add one more thing: this debate we’re having is nothing new, and one that Charlotte Lennox wrote an entire novel about in 1752–The Female Quixote. The protag, Arabella, makes a distinction between fairy tales and real world stories that speak lies. The fairy stories are clearly not real, but influence by means of the application of a moral rule, while the real world stories pretend to be true and simply misrepresent reality. Here is a little blog post I wrote about it: On Fiction and Truth. It is, however, only peripherally related to this subject, but gives the gist of the 1752 novel.

Johne Cook September 27, 2012 at 9:21 AM

That’s a great post, and the question you ask is a fair one.

Johne Cook September 27, 2012 at 9:18 AM

I think there are a couple of different things at play – the power of an idea as contrasted by the power of a word. I think the power in words is made manifest in how they impact our thinking (and therefore our actions). I think words, by themselves, are like the picture of the downed wire – they represent power but are powerless by themselves.

This is important because of the creation we were working in (and I’ll immediately belabor this point by stating there is really only one Creation, God’s, and everything else we do in an Invention within God’s Creation, but I digress – I don’t mind thinking of our inventions as creation). In God’s Creation, there are real powers at work, some which we are commanded to employ and others we are commanded to avoid. In our creation, we are free to create anything we like and these creations have no impact on the genuine Creation because they are imaginary and impotent.

This comes back to a definition of terms. Let’s say I write about ghosts in a fantasy world of Xixpal. This activity is not anti-scriptural because my ghosts are not the subject of the scriptural mandate. (I wouldn’t shop this manuscript to a CBA publisher because they think of something specific and real and it’s already been made clear that the audience they sell to also make the same error. Therefore, I would shop this manuscript to a secular publisher to avoid this error.) Writing and reading about the interactions with the ghosts of Xixpal have no relation to any scriptural mandates about ghosts because the spiritual beings scripture tells us to avoid in real life have no relation to the storytelling elements I refer to in the text of my manuscript, a fantasy environment that exists only in my imagination and the imagination of my prospective readers.

Jill September 27, 2012 at 2:57 PM

Ghosts aren’t necessarily anti-scriptural, anyway; it depends on how they’re dealt with. Also, a fantasy author must remember that their readers do exist in the world, and while there may be nothing wrong with a ghost and the way it’s used in a fantasy context, ghosts and other such beings resonate with us on a subconscious level. It’s really, really hard to break away from this subconscious resonance. Because of that (as well as a general failure for many people to ever think deeply about anything), don’t be surprised when people of this world get offended by this hypothetical other-world ghost. The author’s soul may be clean before God, but there will be those who will believe the author to be a heretic.

R. L. Copple September 27, 2012 at 10:53 AM

“I don’t understand the reverse, that all is spiritually clean so long as it’s hidden in a fantasy world.”

I wouldn’t say “all” by any means. Fiction communicates ideas as well as non-fiction. But I think the difference is no so much the “ideas” can’t be wrong, but that the vehicle for the ideas are not * necessarily* wrong even if they might be in our real lives. Because they exist in a world I created, and made up the laws for. So in effect, I’m postulating as a Christian author, “What if God designed the world to operate like this…”

So, for instance, the magic in Harry Potter doesn’t follow the same path as it does in real life. As a matter of fact, it bears little resemblance to our real world witches in Wicca and the like. And they didn’t like HP because it used false stereotypes of witches, like flying around on broomsticks.

Likewise, in my novels, by way of example, the main characters acknowledge that their “magic” comes from God. The evil wizards are those who don’t acknowledge that and seek to use it for their own purposes and believe they control it. The only real difference in reality in that case is we call people who acknowledge that such comes from God as prophets and miracle workers, not wizards and witches. But it is a different world with different laws. Because it is fantasy, we know that going into it. We know it it isn’t real, that the laws work differently there than in real life. Therefore, there isn’t a one-to-one equivalency to our lives.

So I don’t think it is that the reverse of our life is okay in another created world, but at least for those working in it, the two are different. If that is not clear or established, that’s a different issue.

But I would also add, that fiction isn’t a lie. A lie implies intentional deception. A person who picks up a piece of fiction knows it is not real. There is no deception going on as it relates to the story or world. So it can’t be a lie. Rather, it is a mutually shared alternate reality between author and reader. Any reader of HP who thinks that bears any resemblance to reality, then goes to the Wiccans expecting to ride broomsticks or wave a wand around and say some words, and have things happen, will be sorely disappointed. The definition of “fantasy fiction” is “this is not real, it is made up by the author.” Anyone who takes it as more than that is at fault, not the author.

But I will add, if the story conveys *ideas* and teachings that are false, that is another issue altogether, and worth considering in the context of Christian fiction.

Melissa Ortega September 27, 2012 at 12:34 PM

“A person who picks up a piece of fiction knows it is not real.”

Oh how I wish this was always true.

Jill September 27, 2012 at 2:47 PM

I think this is a good distinction to make between ideas and the vehicles of ideas. Ideas can be powerful, both for the good and the bad. And that’s, I think, what I’m really trying to say here. Ideas can still be dangerous, even housed cozily in fantasy fiction.

Nikole Hahn September 26, 2012 at 12:57 PM

Being that I am a (gasp) Harry Potter fan, the message isn’t the first thing I look for in a Christian novel, but yes, being that I am from a Mormon background, I am so leery of use or misuse of scripture in myself and others. One thing I don’t mention in my reviews, Mike, is how well-researched each of your novels comes off when someone reads them. Someone somewhere on some blog said to read all genres to be a good writer from nonfiction to fiction. I can see how being well read deepens the characters and plots in a novel.

Jessica Thomas September 26, 2012 at 5:45 PM

Nikole, I didn’t realize you had a Mormon background. In light of that knowledge, your comments take on new meaning. I can understand why you might be hypersensitive to this issue.

Iola September 26, 2012 at 2:17 PM

The Widow of Saunders Creek by Tracey Bateman (published by WaterBrook) has ghosts, and it’s not even speculative. Bateman’s previous book, Thirsty, touched on vampires (I didn’t read Thirsty – I found the protagonist unlikeable, which makes reading a book written in the first person pretty difficult).

I’ve also just read an ARC of James L Rubart’s new book, Soul’s Gate. He points out in the Author’s Note at the end that parts of the book are fact and parts fiction, but declines to say which is which.

So, regardless of the ‘theological correctness’, there does seem to be a market for these books. After all, these authors keep getting published, which implies their titles are selling.

My Amazon review of Widow:

david w. fry September 26, 2012 at 7:08 PM


I’m de-lurking (the Trekkie in me screams de-cloaking) to say that I’m intrigued by your blog discussions. I’m in the middle of “Resurrection” and am monumentally tempted to jump to “The Telling” with all this ethereal buzz going on.

Keep driving vehicles with “messages on board”. There may be coin in that someday – remember those “Baby On Board” windshield signs? Just sayin’ 🙂

I enjoyed running into you at conference and look forward to doing so again.

D.M. Dutcher September 27, 2012 at 3:37 AM

This is tough. You’re right in that people need to treat novels as novels, and that means realizing what is in them isn’t always a reflection on how ultimate reality is.

However, if you write a Christian novel, you are writing a theological one. I’m willing to bet the ghost box doesn’t have REAL elder gods, ala Lovecraft or Derleth-in other words they’ll probably be demons in disguise. Why? Because you can’t transgress the theology we know without opening up a can of problems, and the concept of elder gods done straight is inimical to a Christian worldview. The real problem is where we draw the line at what theological aspects can be explored, and what can’t.

There’s really no answer to this. Mostly you’d need to find a publisher and audience comfortable with your level of experimentation, and know your conscience enough to realize what you feel isn’t speculation, but transgression.

Ane Mulligan September 27, 2012 at 7:38 AM

Mike, I read fiction for a good story. I don’t read fiction for theology, although if the author put in really strange theology that tried to persuade me to follow the antichrist, I’d throw it away. 🙂 I wrote a short ghost story. My ghost is a boiled-peanut-eating ghost. It’s fun and completely non-scary. I sometimes think we go too far with analyzing fiction. I don’t analyze, I read it and enjoy it. It’s entertainment not Bible study.

James L. Rubart September 27, 2012 at 7:48 AM

Slap my name on the want to read it now list.

Jason Joyner September 27, 2012 at 10:51 AM

There’s a lot going on here. It really shoots to the heart of CBA fiction and what it wants to be. You talked about this in your conference debrief – the camp that wants our fiction to be squeaky clean and always an encouragement (almost a ficitonal devotional) at the end, or those who want to tell stories that will hit people with its resonance to reality – but introduces that spiritual aspect that they may otherwise ignore.

I want to see books like this one have a place in the CBA. I don’t think it does currently. The premise reminds me of Robin Parrish and his Dominion trilogy as well as his stand alone Nightmare. Both dealt with mystical relics, spiritual dominiation, and/or ghosts. I don’t know for a fact, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t sell well and that it was a huge frustration for him. It was cool that he got a good platform to try – it didn’t seem to fly from my perspective (although they were very good books).

The Ghost Box makes me think of James Scott Bell’s zombie lawyer series under the pen name K. Bennett. JSB hasn’t been writing specifically CBA fiction for a little while (his Ty Buchanan series got promoted through CBA avenues, but they were published by an ABA house). Even though his K. Bennett books deal with Satan setting up his headquarters in Los Angeles, shape-shifters, werewolves, and the titular zombie character that is searching for her soul, there is strong Christian content in there. But JSB was smart to take it far away from the CBA market. It is more Christian than some CBA books I’ve read, but it wouldn’t pass by the gatekeepers.

I argued in my 3rd post about The Telling for the CSFF Tour that it has a place in CBA fiction, or at least Christian fiction. Whether that is truly borne out in reality of sales and acceptance is another story.

Merrie Destefano September 27, 2012 at 1:12 PM

I wish you the best on selling The Ghost Box to a CBA editor. You know I love that book! However, I personally think that book will have a better chance in the general market. But, hey, that’s just me.

Bob Avey September 27, 2012 at 3:52 PM

I’m glad I have an understanding publisher.

J. Mark Bertrand September 27, 2012 at 5:21 PM

“I am thy father’s spirit / doomed for a certain term to walk the night.” You’re in good company, at any rate. When it comes to theologically rich material in the Western tradition, it’s hard to beat Hamlet.

Lisa Godrees September 28, 2012 at 7:43 PM

I know I’m coming in late on the debate, but I really appreciate your post. I’ve been thinking a lot about Christian fiction. I’m interested in writing YA Spec fiction, myself, because that is what teens today read: dystopian, paranormal romance, sci-fi, fantasy. What are we offering in Christian fiction that can compete? I know that there are YA Spec writers, but we are few and far between. So that leads me to my next question:

Are we Christians writing fiction or are we writing Christian fiction? It seems to me that if we are Christians in it just to write a good story, we are missing out on a great opportunity. Jesus commanded us to go into the world and make disciples. Why not evangelize/minister through our writing? To do this, our books need to reach non-believers and deliver the message of Truth or it should encourage Christians in their spiritual walk. Whatever we do, we must do for the glory of God.

One of the reasons I love to read Francine Rivers (even though she’s not a Spec writer) is because her books challenge me. I want to have faith like Hadassah’s in Voice in the Wind, I gain insight on Hosea by reading Redeeming Love, I appreciate the way she delves into abortion and generational cursing in The Atonement Child.

We need to strive to be culturally relevant in creative ways. That’s why I think a story about ghosts, vampires, witches, mummies, other worlds, or whatever you can imagine are needed, as long as the theological message of the book brings honor to God. So I would contend not that we demand too much theology from our Christian fiction, but that we do not demand enough. But that’s an argument in semantics. You can tell I agree with you, Mike.

Now, did you call God a jackass? LOL

Katherine Bolger Hyde October 3, 2012 at 4:43 PM

Mike, I’m glad to see I have some company in the “unacceptable theology in fiction” department. A novel of mine that involves a dead narrator has been rejected on theological grounds by just about every CBA publisher. Hello, this is fiction, people! And why should Christians be the last people to buy into anything supernatural? We do believe in a miraculous resurrected God, after all!

Comments on this entry are closed.

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: