Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Begotten: A "Gift" and a Challenge Part 2

I must admit that when I heard this described as a Davinci Code for Christians that I was immediately concerned. It is one thing for a secular writer writing to a secular audience to use suspect "history" to create an engaging, but, let's face it, heretical story. However, a Christian writer writing for a Christian audience needs to be a bit more careful about the truth. Fortunately, most of those particular fears faded as I read the book.

Likewise, I was also fearful that the story would end up treating the gifts of the spirit like super-powers and the story would turn into a renaissance spiritual Legion of Superheroes. I loved those comics as a kid, but superpowers are controlled by the superhero. The operation of spiritual gifts must be controlled from on high. Fortunately, Bergren handled the exercise of the gifts mostly in a sensitive and reverent manner used only at the unction of the Holy Spirit of God.

So, the story was less problematic than I feared it would be. Nevertheless, I still had some concerns. Before I address those concerns, I feel I need to set forth my own background for the sake of full disclosure. I am a third generation Pentecostal. My grandparents on my mother's side were at Azusa Street and my grandparents on my father's side were at Hot Springs, Arkansas. These are two of the places where the modern Pentecostal movement was birthed. Of course, the operation of the Holy Spirit through individuals has been part of church history from the beginning. I have written extensively about the nature and operation of the Gifts of the Spirit as well as the Person and Character of the Holy Spirit, third person of the Holy Trinity.

I will try to keep denominational doctrine to a minimum in this discussion, but since this is a subject area largely ignored by denominations other than Pentecostal/Charismatic groups, that doctrinal bias (hopefully based on scripture and not just a blind following of church doctrine) will be present. I'm not apologizing, just putting my next few comments into perspective.

So, onward to my concerns.

The Problem of Assigning Authority to Non-Canonical Documents

One characteristic of many cults is what I've called the "Element of the Extra Book." Somehow the revelation of the Bible is insufficient and we need another revelation. Recently, we have seen this emerging in a revised interest in the Gnostic pseudo-gospels and epistles. There is always hidden in these type of discussions some sort of assumption that there is a conspiracy to keep these incredible revelations from Christians. They imply that Canon was decided upon by a group of men based pretty much on their own judgment of what they liked and disliked, and that they more or less capriciously made these decisions.

This view is a false view. For the most part, the canon was established based on what was already recognized as inspired and authentic by the church fathers for centuries.

for well over a century the books we find in our New Testament had often been copied together and distributed in a form not unlike the canonical New Testament of later years. The Chester Beatty Papyri contains most of the New Testament and dates to about 200 A.D. at least 100 years before the Canon was settled by the Church Councils and Synods of the Fifth Century.

As early as 150 A.D. the four gospels or “traditions” as they were often called were being distributed together. Likewise, by the middle of the Second Century, the Pauline epistles were collected and distributed as a single volume.

The Canon of scripture then was not a matter in which a group of men sat around and decided what books were and were not good ones to have in the canon. It was a recognition of what has already been accepted as inspired and authoritative.

In The Begotten a document of undetermined authorship and mysterious origin is elevated to near equality with the Holy Canon. In one instance, (see below) it is even given priority over the Word. While Bergren is careful to indicate that the document does not contradict scripture, it is nonetheless treated as scripture. Given the current world view that questions the authority of scripture even in many churches, I find it disturbing that the heroes in a Christian novel seem to need another mystical document other than the Bible to guide their actions.

The Problem of Exclusivity

While I am sure that Bergren did not intend to create a spiritual elite in her story, by default that happened. The use of the term The Gifted, by it's nature implies that the other Christians do not have gifts. However, a careful reading of the Canonical I Corinthians 12, which is our primary source of information about the Gifts of the Spirit discussed in this book, assumes that all parts of the body of Christ are "gifted" in some way. The gifts are discussed in the context of the body and the point of the chapter is not so much to talk about spiritual gifts but to correct a tendency the Corinthians apparently had of considering some gifts more important than the others and consequently considering some members of the body more important than others.

"The Gifted" are almost treated in this book like "The Charmed Ones" from the now defunct WB TV series. They are reluctantly set apart for great things, and while fallible human beings, they are still just a little bit better in many ways than everyone else. Or at least set apart form them. Perhaps it is more like an exclusive club. How many times in the book did someone say, "Are they one of us?" As opposed to what? One of "them," those other people out there who are not "gifted" like us? Again, I doubt that was intended, but unintended consequences are consequences nonetheless.

Building a heirarchy of blessing among believers is a dangerous thing. As a Pentecostal teacher, one of the things I have had to struggle with is keeping my students from feeling superior to those who do not share our belief that the operation of the gifts of the spirit did not cease with the end of the Apostolic era and the close of canon. Ranging from an arrogant assumption that we were spiritually stronger and more effective than our counterparts in non-Charismatic churches to a patronizing pitying of those who do not 'have the light' on the subject we have often been guilty of acting superior to others.

One may try to excuse this by pointing to years of persecution, mocking, and being accused of being in league with the devil by some parts of Christendom. But, there is no excuse, even that of persecution, that justifies spiritual pride. That was the sin of the Pharisees.

But one need not feel superior to others to shut them out or adopt an us verses them attitude. Certainly, we do not see overt spiritual pride in this book, but we see a definite suspicion of those outside the club leading even to a reticence to glorify God in public for these gifts. Certainly, the fear of torture and death is a deterant, yet, the early church faced the same threats and preached, healed and worked miracles on the street corner.

The Problem of Tongues

One obvious bias found in this book is a bias against the Gift of Tongues. Bergren does not deny it as a gift from God, but it is definitely treated as a second class gift. Indeed, when a woman comes to them speaking in tongues (actually praying in tongues to be accurate) she is immediately suspect, and generally discounted since the non-Canonical letter to the Corinthians they are following does not mention it. The fact that the Canonical epistle does as an equal to healing and miracles is discounted in light of the "suppressed" document.

In this case, the story defers to this document as opposed to the recognized general revelation of scripture. Now, I know this is fiction, but when the good guys discount scripture for an apocryphal document that is hardly in keeping with sound doctrine. And someone in the story should have pointed that out. However, the author's bias against tongues was too strong. How do we know this? Consider the following. First, the characters without correction defer to the seven gifts of the apocryphal document over the canonical epistle. Secondly, the one in the book with the gift of tongues is unstable, kept on the fringes of the company and eventually betrays them. This reinforces the image of people who speak in tongues as driven by emotion without ability to reason. Finally, in her study guide at the end of the book, Bergren makes it clear that she considers tongues to be of less importance than the other gifts by taking a couple of Pauline statements out of their context.

Now, someone can make the case (erroneously I believe) that the gifts stopped operating at the end of the apostolic era rejecting all of the gifts. However, there is no Biblical justification for accepting some of the gifts and excluding two because they are - well a tad embarrassing. Hey, on the Day of Pentecost, the people heard the disciples speaking in tongues and thought they were drunk. Yet, I might point out that the first gifts to be expressed in the apostolic era were the verbal ones - Tongues and Prophecy. Perhaps this is because the last thing most of us are willing to give up is what we say. Paul says that the tongue is like the bit in the horses mouth. If God can control the tongue he has control of the rest of us. That doesn't make tongues more important. It just explains why so many of us would like to blot it out of the panoply of gifts.

So, these are a few of the theological concerns I have. I still find the book well written and I would probably want to read more in the series. However, in my role as a consumer advocate, I have to warn you that some parts of the theology are shaky and just remember it's a story, only a story, and your theology needs to come from the Word of God found only in the Holy Bible.

So, what is the intersection of theology and fiction writing? When do extra-Biblical issues play a legitimate role in writing? How do we bring this together? I'm not sure I have all the answers, but maybe we need to raise the questions. Let's talk about that tomorrow. Meanwhile see what others are saying about The Begotten.

Sally Apokedak
Brandon Barr
Jim Black
Justin Boyer
Jackie Castle
Karri Compton
CSFF Blog Tour
Gene Curtis
D. G. D. Davidson
Jeff Draper
April Erwin
Beth Goddard
Marcus Goodyear
Todd Michael Greene
Jill Hart
Michael Heald
Christopher Hopper
Joleen Howell
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Mike Lynch
Terri Main
Rachel Marks
Melissa Meeks
Pamela Morrisson
John W. Otte
Steve Rice
Ashley Rutherford
Chawna Schroeder
James Somers
Rachelle Sperling
Stuart Stockton
Steve Trower
Speculative Faith
Robert Treskillard
Jason Waguespac
Laura Williams
Timothy Wise
Karina Fabian

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Blogger Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

Great post, Terri. I should have guessed the theology issue would center around the gifts of the Spirit--I mean the name of the series should have been my first clue!

You raised great questions at the end. I'll be interested in where you go with those.


April 23, 2008 at 12:21 PM  
Blogger Brandon Barr said...


This was a great observation on your part.

As a fellow writer, we do need to be careful not to create theological issues within our works.

I agreed with all your points.

Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

April 24, 2008 at 1:34 PM  
Blogger Donna Sundblad said...

Hi Terri,

What we write reflects real life in various ways. The fact that we have denominations within the Christian community shows division. One believes in tongues and others do not. Sad really because we are to have no divisions among us and yet each time another split happens our unity is fractured. All of those involved feel they are following God's word. In this vein, they are doing the same in their writing. The solution is to really STUDY God's word and church history and get on the right track and then echo it in our writing.


May 14, 2008 at 4:42 AM  

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