Saturday, July 09, 2011

Good lesson. Bad story?

My introduction to fiction written by Christians was sadly not “The Hobbit” or “The Chronicles of Narnia”. Neither of these really grabbed me as a child. My parents were not particularly readers, it’s not something I saw too much in the house. Maybe they were ‘behind closed doors’ readers or maybe I was oblivious but I do not remember reading as part of the culture of my family.

Books were though. My Dad was a collector of antiques and curiosities. And if that makes you think of my childhood home as looking a bit like a museum, then you’ve got the right picture. In our back family room, Dad had an entire wall made to be a book shelf. It was filled with hundreds of old, dusty volumes of poetry, history and I think four copies of the complete works of Shakespeare. Dad bought books for how they looked.

My Dad has a bit of the flair for the dramatic. In front of the book shelf was his half grand piano and a carved wooden writing desk complete with inkwell and quill. On the bottom row of the bookshelf were about 500 LP records.

In the 80’s, cable TV had not yet reached the channel capacity of today’s 5,348 and counting (remember the song “57 channels and nothing on”? That was supposed to be hyperbole! Ha!), so in the summer, if I did not want to watch a soap opera, my other option was to walk up to the library. We had a little local branch around the corner from us that was quaint and air conditioned. It was here that I learned to love reading.

I think I read every Encyclopedia Brown story at that library. I am happily rediscovering these kinds of stories by reading their source material in Sherlock Holmes. I would stay up late, scarred out of my mind reading books about UFO sightings and big foots (big feet?) and other unexplained phenomena.

The first “Christian” fiction I ever picked up was a book called “The Tower of Geburah”, a children’s fantasy novel by John White. I did not know at the time that this series was an homage to Lewis’ Narnia that Mr. White wrote at the request of his nephews and niece. Delightfully, he put them in their own adventure story and I was caught up in it too. I recently re-read the first book with my son and I enjoyed it again (probably my 4th reading or so) but it definitely doesn’t have the staying power of Narnia, which I found later in life.

Then, when I was a teenager looking around the Bible book store, there was a book on the bargain table that caught my eye. It was called “This Present Darkness” by Frank Peretti. It was on clearance. I picked it up strictly because of it’s cool name and cool cover. This book had not yet become the famous, landmark work for Peretti. I, or any one else it seems, had never heard of it. I bought it. I may be the first person ever to buy that book. I like to think that I discovered it.

Well, I opened it and like many, many others, could not put it down. It was fast, exciting and scary. It opened my imagination. I ate it up. About a year later, this book blew up and became a best-seller and it’s own culture in the American Christian scene. I haven’t read it since. I remember not liking the sequel as much but it was every bit as popular as the first. A friend of mine used to say, “In the 70’s, people knew you were a Christian if you were carrying around a large ‘Good News Bible’. In the 80’s, it’s a copy of Frank Peretti’s books”.

If you’ve never read it, it’s about a small town church congregation that is caught up in a high stakes spiritual battle of which they are mostly unaware. We see the story unfold in the physical world and in the spiritual as angels and demons fight to influence human lives.

After this book hit, Christians began discussing ‘spiritual warfare’. People started to see their life as a battle. ‘Warfare’ prayer and songs became quite common in Christian meetings. And there were reactions and warnings to not let fiction influence your theology. It was a big deal.

Recently, I was at the movies with a couple of friends and we were standing in front of a poster for the next Christian outreach film coming to one or so theaters within a hundred miles of you. This is a “message” movie. I know, because the poster tells me what the message is. I don’t even need to see this movie to know what I’m supposed to get out if it. This movie wants me to be a better Dad. I don’t know if this movie is good but it got us to talking about stories and why it seems that Christians have a hard time writing or telling good ones.

I think it’s because we start with the lesson and work our way backward. I don’t think Peretti started with the idea that he wanted to teach us all about spiritual warfare. I think he wanted to tell a good story. I think he liked scary stories and thought it’d be cool to write a scary story about angels and demons. It seems in a lot of Christian story telling, the story is secondary to the message.

You may be saying, “Of course we start with the lesson! We do it because Jesus did it. He told parables.” Yes he did. And I like parables. Parables are short. Most of them take about 2 minutes to read or hear. Some less. It’s a small message in story form told to open our eyes to (or hide...which is confusing I know but Jesus said it, not me) a spiritual truth. The people hearing the parables came to hear a message. Parables work fine in that context. I love it when preachers use parables instead of just lecturing. It’s way less boring.

A 90 minute or 300 page parable is boring. Why? Because you feel the sell. If you sense the ‘message’ early on, your mind puts up walls to it. Stories are supposed to ignite imagination and take us to another place. Stories help us recover something that gets stolen by the false world around us. Stories remind us of what’s true. But if you start backward from the ‘message’, it seems harder for the story to work it’s magic, not impossible perhaps, but harder.

Lewis, Tolkien, L’Engle, King, Grisham, Lawhead, Rowling and many others have all written distinctly ‘Christian’ and enormously popular stories. What makes them different than ‘Christian’ fiction or movies? Do you have a favorite book/movie? What makes a story work for you?


Jamie Arpin-Ricci said...

So true, Chris. I think the work of Tolkien is a powerful example of this. Tolkien hated allegory, yet his works have been endlessly mined (successfully) for some deeper message. I think people find it because he wrote a powerfully good story through the lens of his worldview (which was Christian). Inevitably, if you create a world/story based on the premise of such a worldview, truth makes itself known. You don't have to beat people over the head with it.

I remember my Peretti days. I went back recently I found myself slightly appalled that I liked it so much. But THAT is another story altogether!

Pete said...

I just talked a little about this in an interview I did for another website. Here's the applicable bit:

"Forget about trying to tell a “Christian” story and just make sure you are telling a good one. If you hone your craft, and tell a story that rings true to people, Christian and non-Christian alike, then it’s going to be a book that people will want to read and tell their friends about. If you concentrate on telling the best story you can, you won’t be able to keep Christ out of it. He’ll show up, he’ll haunt the pages even though you may never see him. Trust that. Rather than looking for ways to use Christ, concentrate on writing the leanest, tightest story you can and trust that Christ can use you."

Here's the rest of the interview:

Also, I had to chuckle at this bit of irony: "And there were reactions and warnings to not let fiction influence your theology."

Unknown said...

A story works for me when the characters are well developed and engaging. I really like a lead character who suffers from but ultimately triumphs over a tragic flaw and possesses a spiritual gift or sixth sense. I do not read as much as I want to, because when I find a story I really like, I become immersed in it. I actually go through a bit of a depression when I finish a series or book as I grieve the loss of the character. It’s ridiculous, I know. But it’s the truth. A story also works for me when it is epic in scope. For instance, I love a story that starts out on a small battlefield in the far reaches of the empire, sweeps us emotionally and geographically through the landscape of our minds and the map, and climaxes in the Roman Colosseum, or the Death Star, or a Romulan mining vessel.

My favorite movie to date is: Gladiator (with Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix)! I have been reading historical fiction about King Arthur. And the most recent character I have grieved over is Odd Thomas, a Dean Koontz creation.

I think the problem with so-called, Christian lit and movies, is that we can’t just tell a story. Like you said Chris, Christian authors try and write 300 page parables or make 2 hour long fables. Freud is credited as saying, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” I often wonder, why can’t a story just be a story? As Christians we should be really good at telling stories! We are participating in the creative process God started, endowed us with, and has commanded us to cooperate in.

Chris Whitler said...

Yeah Jamie, I wondered about how Peretti would seem to me now. Sometimes, you can't go back :) Thanks, I agree and while it's not fiction, I eagerly await your book.

Thanks for your comments Pete! I'll check out the interview. And you guys should check out Mr. Peterson's books (

Mark, are you reading Lawhead's books about Arthur? Add them to your list if you're not. And with your criteria you gave for a story you like, they will fit right in. They are called "the Pendragon Cycle"...5 (and kinda 6) books in all.

Unknown said...

My mom always said that any story where the good guys are actually good (could be flawed- actually MUST be flawed) and the good guys win, then that is a christian story.
If you want my vote for a great story, I have to fall deeply in love with a character. A great story is just icing on the cake, but the truth is I would follow Aslan, Reepicheep, Podo Helmer, Tuesday Next, The Boxcar Children, Odd Thomas, Fin Button, or Harry Potter down any road they wandered down.

Your Friend Aaron said...

I saw an old copy of 'Piercing the Darkness' where I'm staying and read the first three pages and the last paragraph. I was surprised at how bad it was. I agree with Pete. Write a good story from a Kingdom worldview, and the message will write itself. (Of course, Christians [thankfully] aren't the only ones who get preachy. Remember 'Saved'?)

Sustar said...

Aww... poor Peretti.

Man, I hope he doesn't kill himself after reading these comments.

If you want to read a great story about light, darkness, hope, sacrifice, and war, there's plenty out there with the message of God's love, grace, hope, truth, life, wonder, and joy. It screams through the pages.
I wonder if the Bible writers negotiated with their publishers about Christian content.