Tuesday, February 27, 2007

And They All Lived Happily Ever After

There's a story about a woman whose next door neighbor would come over every Monday morning and ask to borrow a book. The next Monday she brought back the book. When the lady asked her how she liked the book, the answer was always the same, "It was just so wonderful. They got married and lived happily ever after."

The woman started to suspect her friend didn't read the books at all and possibly couldn't read. So, the next time she came by she gave the woman a Bible. Sure enough, a week later, her friend was on the door step smiling. When asked how she liked the book, the woman said, "Oh, this one is the best one yet. At the end they got married and lived happily ever after."

Considering the book of Revelation, that is true, but there's a lot of horrible things that happen before that event. Which raises the question of happy endings in Christian literature.

There was a time in Christian writing that everything had to end on an upbeat note. The sinner got saved. The couple married. The sick person was healed. The farm was saved from foreclosure. Frequently, this occurred through a literal deus ex machina with God performing a miracle making everything turn out good.

This formulaistic, pollyannaish writing began to wear thin on many Christians who demanded a more realistic treatment of the world around them. They knew in the real world the sinner didn't always get saved. The righteous widow often lost the farm. The gravely ill person died. And a new "gritty realism" in Christian writing began to appear. In some cases, the stories were quite dark indeed. It is perhaps an extreme reaction against the unrealistically optimistic view of Christian literature of the past (and, in most places, the present.)

In time, we will likely see a balance resulting in realistic optimism or hopeful pessimism or some other good literary term. However, that is not the point of this essay. What I am considering is the question of the happy ending. Can there be such a thing as a Christian tragedy?

One woman on a Christian writing list argued that happy endings are realistic because things always turn out good for the Christian. Initially, I was tempted to dismiss the statement as a symptom of comfortable Christianity experienced by Christians living in America. I remember reading Fox's Book of Martyrs and needing to take periodic breaks in the reading because of the descriptions of the gruesome tortures inflicted on the Early Church. Yet, when I thought about it, I understood something of what she was saying. Even a "tragic" ending for Christian only leads to his or her heavenly reward.

Yet, it is disingenuous to write stories in which everything always works out all the time. Sometimes no matter how hard you try to make someone understand about the free gift of salvation, if they choose not to accept it, there is nothing we can do to force it upon them. Some will be lost. Can we avoid talking about that particular tragedy and still be true to scripture? When a person stands strong in the Lord and exercises personal and professional ethics she or her won't always get the promotion. Sometimes the ethical worker will be fired by an organization which asserts an "anything goes" policy for making a profit. Sometimes, a Christian will die for the faith. It is happening as you read this blog.

So, what is the balance? Do we only write despairing stories to effect a type of sanctified gritty realism? I don't think that's the answer either. Christian literature needs to have some element of hope even in the darkest story. I like the story of Stephen in the Bible. He is tried and taken to be stoned. As the rocks fall on him he looks up and sees the Lord. There is no miraculous rescue, and none is required. He had finished his course with honor.

Whether it is a simple story of a future Christian business executive fired because he won't exploit the primitive people of an alien planet or the story of a martyr in some future dystopia which persecutes Christians, there needs to be some sort of nobility found in how they meet their fates.

Still, I must say, I do like a happy ending. It's just how we define that which counts.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

An Unconventional Christian Dystopia Premise

It seems that much of current Christian science fiction focuses on a Dystopic vision of the future. Dystopias are the opposite of utopias. They are nightmare visions of the world of tomorrow. Dystopias are a staple of science fiction, although, they seem to have become popular in Christian speculative fiction in recent years. Perhaps it is the influence of the Left Behind series placed during the "Great Tribulation" period described in Revelation . Maybe it is just a good way to build a heart-throbbing, action-filled story. Whatever the reason, they are big part of the Christian science fiction scene.

Most of these dystopias postulate an atheistic/humanistic government persecuting an underground, relatively united, Christian church. However, with the notable exception of the communism of the old soviet union, it's satellite states and modern day China, historically, most religious persecution has come from state-sponsored religious groups rather than from atheistic groups. In other words, it is from states that are not anti-religion, but pro-religion to such an extreme that any variation from the state-sanctioned religious belief system is repressed, violently if necessary.

Lately, I've been thinking that an interesting spin on the Christian Underground Church of the future story would be to place it in a world where one particular "Christian" group has taken the reigns of power.

The persecuted church would be composed of individuals who initially supported the "moral" reforms which may have started out innocuously enough like posting the Ten Commandments in classrooms. Later modification of the first amendment to allow repression of certain types of "offensive" materials and religions. This could possibly take place under the rationale that certain religious groups spawn terrorism. Since Christians form the majority, repression of these other religions would be easy to condone.

Then Christianity would be designated as the official religion.Again little objection since most Americans considered themselves Christian, whether they actually went ot church or not.

Over time one segment, the most legalistic of the coalition, gains ascendancy. A Ministry of Religion could be established to provide government assistance to religious organizations, but eventually becoming a vetting agency to determine what is or is not a "legitimate religion." Eventually, it becomes an agency of a new inquisition seeking out "heretics." This list of heretical groups grows to include those teaching salvation through repentance and faith alone, and not through works of righteousness, those holding that there is some flexibility in matters of dress and entertainment, those that practice certain rituals rather than those approved by the state, and possibly those who are simply outside the mainstream of Christianity like Charismatics and Pentecostals.

Lest you believe this to be an unlikely scenario, I suggest you read European history. Entire wars were fought over whether to use one element or two in the celebration of the Eucharist. Wycliffe, one of the first men to translate the Bible into English was martyred for that act alone. John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrims Progress, wrote most of that work while imprisoned for teaching a doctrine different than that sanctioned by the English church at the time.

Even in the Americas, our Puritan forefathers, punished variant doctrines with pillories, beatings, exile and death. Indeed, most of us viscerally approve freedom of religion (or speech or the press for that matter) only in so far as it protects my freedom and not necessarily that of those with whom I disagree. So, it is easy to see how a "majority" religion could slowly turn a moral agenda into a legalistic repressive government.

If Christian speculative fiction is part parable, such a story could be not only action-filled and thought-provoking, but could also be an allegory of the constant spiritual struggle between the forces of legalism and grace.

It has been said that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Whether that damnation is personal or societal, it is certainly fair game to explore in fiction. Yes, I am working on a story with this premise. When it's finished, I'll let you know how it came out. But, hey, feel free to create your own nightmare theocracy. If it's good enough, it might even appear in a future issue of Wayfarers Journal.

In the meantime, what are your thoughts? Post them here.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Where do you after you run out of Map?

CSSF Blog Tour

Where The Map Ends is a graphically appealing content rich web site focusing on the field of Christian Speculative Fiction. WTME doesn't present a great deal of fiction on it's own site, rather it is more of an "industry" publication featuring interviews, tools for writers and links to other Christian Speculative Fiction sites. In that sense it is a "portal" into those other worlds.

Personally, I found the tools for writers to be most interesting. The how-to articles were alright, but in some ways lacked the depth that I would have preferred as someone with a lot of writing experience, however they could be helpful to the beginner. But most enjoyable were the "toys." These include idea starters, a random story generator and a map creator. You have that alternate world ready to go, but where is everything in that world? You can use this to begin to visualize the terrain.

WTME is visually appealing. I wish I had those graphics. However, I suspect that those accessing through a dial-up connection would need patience waiting for the screen to load. I don't know that for certain, but would love to findout from someone with a dial up ISP. My only irritation was the email newsletter sign up box which extended beyond the content box. But that is a minor design issue.

As with most Christian speculative fiction sites, there was a bit of defensiveness. I guess this is natural since in some quarters the term is considered a contradiction in terms. I'm just not sure we need to be bringing it up all the time. After all, if you have a speculative fiction site, you are "preaching to the choir." I believe our best promotion will be producing quality fiction which stands on strong theological grounds. However, I'm not totally sure we need to seek to convert those who don't like speculative fiction, but to serve those who do.

Where the Map Ends, also like most spiritually-based speculative fiction sites definitely targets a Christian audience, although it is generally free of "churchspeak" which I find refreshing. However, it reminds me of what my friend Tony Whittaker calls "The Old Story about the Old Story." It seems that 90 percent of all Christian web sites target a Christian audience. And I admit that, so far, my promotion for Wayfarers Journal has been in the Christian community, even though the site is designed to be seeker friendly. We all need to also think of how spiritually-based speculative fiction can help reach outside the Christian community to impact the world at large.

Nevertheless, this is a fun, informative site, and a must see for anyone interested in Christian Speculative fiction either as a fan or a writer.

Read other reviews of this site this week at these other blogs:

Nissa Annakindt
Wayne Thomas Batson
Jim Black
Grace Bridges
Jackie Castle
Valerie Comer
Karri Compton
CSFF Blog Tour
Gene Curtis
D. G. D. Davidson
Chris Deanne
Janey DeMeo
Tessa Edwards
April Erwin
Kameron M. Franklin
Linda Gilmore
Beth Goddard
Marcus Goodyear
Andrea Graham
Todd Michael Greene
Leathel Grody
Katie Hart
Sherrie Hibbs
Sharon Hinck
Christopher Hopper
Jason Joyner
K. D. Kragen
Tina Kulesa
Kevin Lucia and The Bookshelf Reviews 2.0 - The Compendium
Rachel Marks
Shannon McNear
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Eve Nielsen
John W. Otte
John Ottinger
Robin Parrish
Cheryl Russel
Hanna Sandvig
Mirtika Schultz
James Somers
Steve Trower
Speculative Faith
Daniel I. Weaver
Timothy Wise

Friday, February 16, 2007

Speculative Fiction in Second Life

"Can Speculative Fiction and Spirituality Co-exist?" is the topic for an online discussion in the virtual world of Second Life, Tuesday, February 20 at 6:30 p.m. (Pacific Time, U.S.) in the Writing and Performance Center (in-world coordinates 231,107,28).

This is an incredible opportunity. Second Life has over 3,000,000 "residents." Many of them are science fiction fans. So, we expect that this could introduce many of them to the idea of Spiritually-Based science fiction and fantasy.

If you want to join in, you will need to download the software for second life and set up an account. The basic account is free. But you might want to practice navigating "in-world" before Tuesday night. But here are the quick instructions for getting to the site:

  1. Log in with your name and password
  2. Click on the button in the lower right corner of your screen marked "Map"
  3. Near the bottom right of the "Map" page, you will see a place to enter coordinates do so and click teleport. That will take you to the Writing and Performance Center.

I look forward to seeing you there.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Of Blog Tours, chats and the Christian Dynamic in Marketing

I spent much of my young adult life in advertising either selling it or writing it or both. As such, I was part of just about every type of business. There was one thing in common about nearly all of them, they were in competition with someone else selling the same kind of product. And in the advertising business, you were often in competition with the people with whom you worked. The back stabbing in the media made you wonder if you even worked for the same organization. No wonder, the stock prices for Alka Seltzer fell when I got out of the game.

I have been struck by the contrast in Biblical Speculative Fiction world. Consider the blog tour. Basically, it’s a group of writers helping other writers get out the word about their books. Can you imagine GM using it’s commercial time to announce the new models Ford is putting out.

The Ezines are the same way. A number of Christian Speculative Fiction e-zines have published announcements of the launch of Wayfarer’s Journal. And they are doing so enthusiastically, even though, theoretically we are “competitors” for readers and writers. Then there are authors holding chats and blog interviews with other authors, in essence, promoting their books.

But there is an understanding here that by helping each other we help ourselves. As we promote the genre, we build a market for everyone. And while I know this is not unique to Christian publishing, I think in many ways it exemplifies a Christian dynamic which should be present in many areas of life, building each other up and in so doing being built up in return.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Editor of Light at the Edge of Darkness to Guest on "Fab Chat."

Independent publisher Cynthia Mckinnon will be the featured guest on Fab Chat, hosted by author Karina Fabian, Saturday, February 10, 8 p.m. Eastern (U.S.) Time at http://karinafabian.tripod.com/.

MacKinnon runs The Writers Cafe, a small independent publishing company based in Lafayette, Indiana. A passion for writing has characterized MacKinnon's work from teaching young people and adults, through editing and ghost writing for authors, leading to the creation of her own publishing firm.

"I've worked with a variety of authors and found myself saddened by the reactions some of these people receive from traditional publishing houses. If only I could help the talented writers with publication," MacKinnon says.

Her latest anthology, Light at the Edge of Darkness showcases several sub-genres of speculative fiction including horror, science fiction, dystopia, fantasy, time travel, supernatural. The stories have been organized into sub-genres with some authors writing in more than one category.

FabChat offers writers and fans the opportunity to talk informally with authors, editors and others involved in publishing. Fabian has edited an anthology of Catholic Fiction, Infinite Space, Infinite God, published by Twilight Times Press. For more information, check out http://sisgsf.tripod.com/. Fabian's main website is http://www.fabianspace.com/ .

Monday, February 5, 2007

Light at the Edge of Darkness

One of the advantages of having an online presence is that you sometimes get perks. One of those perks arrived in my mailbox last week. It was a book, Light at the Edge of Darkness, an anthology edited by Cynthia MacKinnon and published by Writer's Cafe Press. The book features "Biblical Speculative Fiction" which the book defines as " speculative fiction that is written from a Christian world view intended to inspire and entertain readers.

The book covers a wide spectrum of speculative fiction including horror, fantasy, supernatural and science fiction. The mood ranges from light hearted parody, as in Stephen Rice's "At the Mountains of Lunacy" with a light tip of the hat to H.P. Lovecraft and Andre Norton to "Undeniable," a haunting, horrific story of martyrdom and triumph.

Several of these stories project dark times ahead for Christians. Even though, I personally tend not to fall for the more paranoid prognostications of repressive western governments stifling Christianity. Mostly, I believe this because, Satan doesn't need to resort to such extreme measures. The popular media, the greedy televangelists, and the politicizing of Christianity has been doing the job nicely for him over the past 75 years or so with Europe having a head start on the U.S. No one needs to ban the Bible in America. There's one in every home but hardly anyone reads it anyway. Spiritual apathy among non-believers, and secularization of believers has done more in America to neutralize the Christian witness than the persecution of Nero did in Ancient Rome.

However, these apocalyptic tales are powerful, with strong characters, and lots of action. They are not my favorites, but that is a matter of personal taste. The craftsmanship in these stories is superior and the equal of anything to be found in the major science-fiction magazines.

Beware, though, as you read through these stories many may be disturbing. Some for reasons I outlined in another post, but mostly because they cause you to see the world differently. You will meet greedy aliens, doubting martyrs, and a righteous man rewarded for his righteousness ... well, I don't want to give that one away, but it may mess up your theology when you read it.

It is important to remember, that these are works of speculative fiction. That means they are unrealistic by nature. In some ways they are the parables of the 21st century. If you spend too much time nitpicking the theology of aliens or even the ethics of militaristic martyrs, you will miss the power of these stories. So, kick back, relax, and enjoy these stories of
Light at the Edge of Darkness.

Light at the Edge of Darkness will be available in April from Writer's Cafe Press.

By the way, read what other bloggers are saying about this book this week. Go to Christian Fiction Review Blog for a list of blogs that will be featuring Light at the Edge of Darkness this week.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Luke Skywalker or St. Luke: The Challenge of Action-Oriented Christian Science Fiction

[Note: This is the editorial from the inaugural issue of Wayfarers Journal. We welcome comments here]

For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;)

(2Co 10:3-4)

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
(Eph 6:12)

I've read science fiction almost since I could read. In grade school, I read stories of The Mushroom Planet and Madeline L'engle's Wrinkle in Time multiple times. I spent many happy hours with a "shy stegosaurus" who could talk and the children who discovered him. As I grew older I discovered Bradbury, Heinlein, Asimov, Simak, Silverberg, Clarke, and other classic writers. I watched Lost in Space and Star Trek (the original series when it first aired). I like most science fiction from old fashioned space opera to the think pieces. However, when I discovered Christian or Biblical science fiction, I was disturbed by some of the stories. I wasn't disturbed because they were so different than the secular science fiction, but because they were so similar.

Recently, I've read a number of stories dealing with a future society in which Christians are persecuted. That, by itself, doesn't bother me. A staple of science fiction has often been a persecuted class of beings struggling against an oppressive government. Indeed, today in much of the world, Christianity is suppressed or outlawed so these stories can make real for those of us privileged to live in free societies, the plight of the underground church. Ideological persecution has even formed the basis for a number of secular science fiction novels over the years. The Handmaiden's Tale, for instance, focused on a future society in which the government tried to institute the old Mosaic law as the law of the land, albeit in a distorted way.

What is troubling, though, about some of these stories, is that I can't always tell the difference between these Christian heroes and the secular ones other than by ideology and lack of profanity. (Some, striving for realism, even include the profanity.) One story, in particular, had the hero escape prosecution when he is rescued by a paramilitary force dodging blaster bursts. This stands in stark contrast to the tradition of Christian martyrdom in which the Christian prays for his executioners as the stones are thrown or the fire lit beneath their feet.

Perhaps, what is even more troubling, is that I enjoyed the story. It had action, well drawn characters, and an exciting ending. Only when I realized this was supposed to be a story about Christian' martyr standing strong for their faith did it become disturbing.

Certainly, Christian characters in stories can have their flaws. Indeed, they must have them to be believable. However, they should never be comfortable with them. They should be striving to live the Christian life, even if they fail. Part of that Christian life is loving your enemies, praying for those that persecute you, and turning the other cheek even in the face of persecution. These are not my words, they are the words of Jesus. They disturb us too, but they disturb us in a good way because we want to hate those who hate us, to persecute those who persecute us, and the only reason we can see in turning the other cheek is to reach for the .45 we have on the table beside us.

And this is the challenge of writing engaging, action-packed, science fiction, that has believable Christian characters, who act in Christian ways. Does this mean Christian characters can never be violent, be part of an interplanetary police or military force? While I think one could make the case for that, I don't personally believe so. What I am saying is that within that context, they need to be different not only in belief, but in behavior. Or at least striving to do so. That may mean weeping after defending oneself against a pursuer or forgiving a futuristic inquisitor torturing a member of an underground church.

"But," you say, "That's not realistic." And death rays, six-legged aliens, and faster than light travel is? Science fiction transcends reality. It always has. It shows us not only what we are but what we can become (either for good or evil.) In all literature a character's Christianity should set him or her apart from non-Christian characters. They must not only believe differently, they must also act differently. That means that they cannot use carnal weapons, either figuratively or literally, to win a spiritual war. They cannot confuse the agents of the enemy for the enemy himself. Their virtues must bring about the victory and not their vices.