Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Shock of Night, by Patrick W. Carr.

  This is the first book of The Darkwater Saga, whose medieval setting is in the twentieth year of King Laidir’s reign. The key figure is Willet Dura raised to minor nobility by Laidir, King of Collum whose citadel is Brunard. Dura served as the king’s reeve and the story begins as he is summoned to investigate the brutal murder of Robin, a guard whose keep was Elwin, a member of one of the religious orders known as the Servants. In an attempt to glean information from Elwin who survived the attack, the Servant pronounces “Domere” upon Dura and expires. From that moment on, Willet Dura is able to delve the minds of all those whom he touches.
  The story unfolds in a tale of Dura’s encounters with the rest of the higher nobles who despise him, a mysterious group known as the Vigil, the four religious orders (Servants, Vanguard, Clast, and Absold), and the menace of Laewan whose minions are those who were once lured into the Darkwater Forest to become his blind followers.
  Willet Dura himself is a survivor of the Darkwater - in a past war, he led a band of warriors into the dreaded forest as a matter of survival against an overwhelming enemy; only Dura escapes, the details of which he is not able to recall and marks him as mysterious and dangerous.
  The singular bright spot in his dismal existence is his betrothed, Lady Gael, with whom he shares an indomitable love. Yet, the prospect of their marriage is increasingly threatened.
  Dura continues his investigation and slowly discovers that there are as many who seek his death as those who are sworn to protect him. As his inquiry becomes more involved, he unearths a plot that threatens the survival of kingdoms and all that he holds dear.

  I grant that the story itself is intriguing and goes a long way in sustaining one’s interest. However, I am quite distraught. One might take issue with its anemic theological world-view (there is an obvious Trinitarian Godhead that corresponds to the Three Persons of the Christian faith) in which little of redemption in this present evil world is artistically dealt with. But that is not what disturbs me. It is the writing itself.
  When I first considered reviewing this novel, I read cursory samplings of some of Carr’s other works, which seemed to hold promise. But I found the writing in this novel to be extremely disappointing. I suspect there are few on this tour, if any, who would agree with me, or at least not to the same extent.

  There is a constant commentary whose purpose, I guess, is to bring the characters to life, but I found to be unrealistic and very distracting. The relentless narrative of body language and facial expressions was simply overbearing: shrugging shoulders, furrowed brows, lips thin, lips tighten, lips quiver, gazes go flat, blossoming anger, blossoming heat, arched eye brows, bile in the throat, chewing the inside of cheeks, faces knotting, standing on the balls of feet, etc. Combined with this were silly metaphors. I catalogued a list of examples, which could have easily been extended. Here are some of them:

p. 46, Invisible hands reached inside my gut and started kneading my stomach like dough.
p. 77, He scowled down at me, his brows meeting over his hooked nose.
p. 77, He spat and growled a curse that could have stripped paint from wood.
p. 78, I gnawed on the inside of my cheek.
p. 112, I felt a trickle of sweat begin to trace an icy path down my spine.
p. 114, My stomach, still queasy, started tumbling in my gut, like an acrobat but not nearly as graceful.
p. 160, His voice rose as the rage trapped behind his eyes broke free.
p. 167, A network of wrinkles radiated out from her mouth, a tight circle at the center of a spider’s web that communicated anger and fear.
p. 170, I could feel the tension in my throat, like lute strings tightened to the breaking point.
p. 172, Uncertainty drained from her like water through the sluice of a dam.
p. 172, She smiled, but her lips imitated the quiver in her fingers.
p. 174, A tremor began in the outer two fingers of his right hand, working its way up his arm until Gael nudged me.
p. 179, A distant rumble of thunder rolled across my hearing like a drummer’s knell before an execution.
p. 206, My stomach collapsed into a hole in my middle, pulling my breath and heartbeat with it.
p. 228, He could feel his eyes trying to start from his head.
p. 232, Cold like the point of a dagger in winter, traced its way through my middle.
p. 238, Anger welled up through my middle, spreading to my arms and legs until the chill from the air faded and my face burned with shame and anger.
p. 260, His eyebrow, as thick over his nose as it was over his eyes, lowered some more.
p. 262, Her brows made half circles over her dark brown eyes.
p. 284, I shook myself like a dog in the rain and stepped behind the barrel.
p. 297, Fear ripped through me like the disturbance of a pebble dropped in a reflecting pool…
p. 309, Her brow lowered, and a vertical line appeared between her eyes.
p. 384, I smiled, forcing my face to don an expression that belied the fear churning in my gut.
p. 399, He eyed Bolt, his dark eyes squinting until they almost disappeared.
p. 401, A giant hand had hollowed out my middle leaving naught but a shell of skin and bones. Spots swam in front of my eyes.
p. 402, Bile built at the back of my throat as more puzzle pieces slipped into place.

Nothing like this is found in the Christian writing that is worthy of emulation (C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Andrew Peterson). Perhaps this is what is being taught at our Christian Writer’s conventions or approved by editors of Christian Fantasy. I hope not.

I received a review copy  from BethanyHouse for this blog tour.

Amazon The Shock Of Night
Author Website

Participant's list:

Thomas Clayton Booher
Keanan Brand
Beckie Burnham
Carol Bruce Collett
Carol Gehringer
Victor Gentile
Rani Grant
Rebekah Gyger
Bruce Hennigan
Janeen Ippolito
Carol Keen
Rebekah Loper
Jennette Mbewe
Shannon McDermott
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Joan Nienhuis
Nissa
Audrey Sauble
Chawna Schroeder
Jessica Thomas
Robert Treskillard
Shane Werlinger
Phyllis Wheeler
Nicole White

Monday, September 21, 2015

September 2015, Christian Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour


The First Principle, by Marissa Shrock.

After  the Great Collapse and the Second Civil War, the geographical and polical makeup of Canada, Mexico, and the United States was reformed by the Council of World Peacekeepers into the United Regions of North America. Governor Wilkins of the The Great Lakes Regions is about to be nominated for the presidency of URNA, when Vivica, her daughter finds out that she’s pregnant. Term law requires that she abort the child, which Vivica has no problem doing. But she begins to have second thoughts when she is challenged by her boyfriend and father of  the child, Ben to keep the baby. Ben is a Chrisitian, who acknowledges his sin and seeks to make things right between him and Vivica and the baby she is carrying. Keeping the baby would not be an easy task as teen girls are constantly monitored. However, Vivica does have a knack for hacking into networks and modifying information, a skill that has been financially rewarded by those whose school grades were in need of adjustment. She’s able to keep her pregancy test results negative, but she is up against the clock as time is obviously going to reveal something that no hacking skill is going to be able to amend.

Ben’s Christianity is an offense to Vivica, but her continued interest in him, and an almost unwilling acknowledgement of a commitment to protect her baby, keeps her from rejecting it outright. To make matters more complicated, Ben is part of the rebel contingent that is gaining in strength; any commitment to him is to place Vivica in opposition to her mother and the whole naturalist philosophy that dominates the political and social structure of URNA.

Marissa Shrock has written a tale that takes current-day issues and injects them into a future that is teetering between dystopia and eutopia. Vivica has to make some hard choices, any of which is going to place her in opposition to family or friend.

The story is fairly well-written, though there is one thing that I find very annoying – free indirect speech. An occasional use is acceptable, but a steady diet can become very irritating. I do not doubt that I am in the minority on this, but I think it is a cheap, colorless way to peek into someone’s mind and see what is going on. Overlooking that, I am quite pleased with Ms Shrock’s writing.

I suspect that the strong, and at times tract-like (though artful), presentation of Christianity might be a source of consternation for some, but frankly, I think it has its place in Christian literature. If the purpose of a story is to present the Christian faith in a straightforward, head-on manner, The First Principle fills the bill. I suspect that is at least part of what the author had in mind. In concert with that was the subtle and sometimes not so subtle encapsulation of the social issues of today – teen pregnancy, abortion, rationale for abortion, the anti-intellectual charge against Chrisitianity, etc. Some of it may come across as stereotypical and might detract from the story, but regardless, the issues are laid out for the reader. For those who are familiar with them already, they might find the novel one-dimensional. But for the world of teens in which not much thought has been given to the issues, or in which the party-line has been uncritically swallowed, this story is precisely what is needed, and it is in that I find its greatest value.

Not only that, but it was very entertaining. An enjoyable read that I have no problem recommending.

am very grateful to Kregal Publications which provided a copy for this review for the September, 2015 Christian Fantasy and Fiction Blog Tour.

Blog Tour Participant Links:

Julie Bihn
Thomas Clayton Booher
Beckie Burnham
April Erwin
Victor Gentile
Carol Keen
Shannon McDermott
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Megan @ Hardcover Feedback 
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Joan Nienhuis
Nissa
Jalynn Patterson
Chawna Schroeder
Jessica Thomas

Monday, December 15, 2014

November/December 2014, CSFF Blog Tour - The Fatal Tree, by Stephen Lawhead

Stephen Lawhead brings his Bright Empires series to a close in the fifth installment, The Fatal Tree. A lot was going on in the first four books and if asked if everything came to a satisfying conclusion, I would say, 'Mmmmm, I guess so.' The End of Everything is reversed, the cast of characters more or less have settled into a happy state of affairs, even as some of those have taken an unexpected turn.

Foremost in mind is Lord Archelaus Burleigh, fiend par excellence who has been converted. Converted? Can we say that he was actually converted? I guess we can; that is, after all, the language used in the tale. And indeed there is a change with Burleigh, a very radical one at that. Since change is at the heart of conversion of any kind, I guess we can agree that such a word can be applied to the character.

However, I do have some serious questions about Burleigh's change of heart. The context of the conversion is the backdrop of the exemplary behavior of Etzel (the business partner and friend of Mina) who is a devout Catholic with a seemingly genuine sense of what it is to imitate Christ, and it is that relentless behavior that wore on Burleigh breaking down all barriers. As a side note, I want to give Etzel the benefit of the doubt, that his character and behavior are based on real New Testament conversion through faith in Christ alone as Lord and Savior without the need for meritorious works (in which case, he is a New Testament convert in spite of his Catholic doctrine which holds to conversion/justification through faith plus works). As a Calvinist, I must make the point, seeing that our theology cannot help but color our story-making, and we all hope our story is good because our theology is good. If not, I wonder how we can still call our writing at its very heart, Christian writing.

Given that context, Burleigh seemed to have undergone some deep seated conviction. His eyes were opened to his nefarious state, and he is so overwhelmed him that his only recourse (as he saw it) was to change and seek whatever means to undo all the wrong he had done. That does lead to a near disastrous miscue on his part that came out of intentions that were noble (I think), and that seemed to be enough for Kit to suddenly have some pity for the man (p 324).

My complaint is a Calvinistic one. Conversion is a work of God in the heart in which God produces a conviction of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8). Without such conviction there is no true repentance toward God and faith toward Christ (Acts 20:21). Burleigh's remorse is over his behavior of the past and the despicable results of that behavior, but it does not come across that he sees himself as a sinner in need of a Savior from that sin. He feels the need to make up for his wrongdoings rather than recognize there is nothing he can do to make up for them and that another must atone for them if he is to have any hope of forgiveness and cleansing.

I know, The Fatal Tree is a work of fantasy, but it is advertised as a Christian work of fantasy. Where is the gospel - the real gospel that you find in Paul whose desire was to boast in nothing but the cross of Christ by whom the world was crucified to him, and him to the world? Who insisted that it is not through keeping the law that one is justified before God (Rom 3:20), but through faith in Christ (Rom 3:22), and that law keeping is a result of salvation rather than the basis of it (Eph 2:10)? Burleigh's behavior does not look like repentance and faith as much as his seeking to fix things for the mess he has made.

The usual objection to this kind of inclusion of the gospel in a novel is that the story will become preachy or soppy or pedantic or confined. It's audience will be limited, and its prospect for publication by a respectable publishing house severely limited. 

Well, I would grant the latter although Thomas Nelson is no mean publishing house, and if the gospel were present in the Bright Empires series as I would like to see it, such a publishing house would not for that reason alone turn Lawhead away provided he applied his fabulous writing with a view to work out the gospel at the appropriate places (such as the conversion of Burleigh).

I must say this, that Mr. Lawhead's development of the inner struggle of Burleigh over Etzel's kindness was brilliant. There was nothing artificial in it, or soppy, or preachy, or pedantic. It was simply a magnificent portrait. My point is the same can be done with the gospel where sin, repentance, and faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior can come through explicitly, genuinely, and naturally. I think that often the offense taken with Christian fiction (such as you see in Amazon reviews) has as much to do (if not more so) with the writing as with the message.

This was the final book in the saga. Did it have a satisfying conclusion? Did it draw all the strands together and bring a closure to the tale? Yes and no. We see what the end of the story is for all of the main characters, but I am a little bewildered. Foremost in my mind is Lady Fayth and Giles who are stranded in a time and place from which there will be no way out. They have only each other and there is the happy conclusion of their discovery of mutual love and resulting marriage. If these two meant anything to the reader, the reader began to root for their romance at some point in an earlier book in the series. But if you were like me, you also expected them to have a significant involvement in the final resolution of things. That they did not was disappointing to me.

I would not hesitate to recommend the Bright Empires series to anyone but would caution that the tale is quite convoluted. Nevertheless, if one bears with it, the complexity actually adds to the quality rather than detracts, and provides ample opportunity for the imagination to romp like a child in an amusement park.





In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher. 

The Fatal Tree (Amazon)
Steven Lawhead's Website
Steven Lawhead's Facebook page

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Merlin's Nightmare by Robert Treskillard, CSFF Blog Tour (August 2014)

Overall evaluation: I recommend the whole Merlin series for young readers, especially those who are fond of Arthurian legend. They would not be disappointed.

I regret that I have not been able to finish Merlin's Nightmare in time for this blog tour, having read only half of it. However, I do wish to make some general remarks.

Without question, the tale is very good. Lots of things going on without any of it feeling out of place or extraneous. So far, the shift of focus is from Merlin to Arthur (Artorius), which had to come sooner or later. It should lead to Arthurian sequels with Merlin still in the picture but likely taking a less important or less prominent role (which is sad - as I found the transition from Bilbo to Frodo).

As a novel for young fantasy readers, the writing is probably appropriate. I have enjoyed everything I've read thus far. The battle in the south and the killing of Horsa by Arthur would wrest the imagination of most young readers, though I did find Arthur's removal of his boots in the heat of battle with a chariot and foot soldiers almost on top of him a little far-fetched (unless they were slip-ons, you just wouldn't have time to do such a thing). The story is a bit gory at times, but not so graphic that it is offensive - at least for me.

Morgana and the Voice come across in a very menacing, dark way; the transformation of Ganeida (Merlin's half sister) into Morgana has been developed quite well through the series. The despicable Vortigern, at least in the first half of the book, seems to be more down to earth. Not that he has become a likable fellow by any means, but you see a side of him that is less monstrous than what we've seen in the previous volumes. At the same time, Vortigern's capricious attitude toward the Saxenow is setting up for what might become a climactic conflict between him and Arthur.

The Picti of the north are an ominous threat, and Merlin, though he has been drawn away to the south with Arthur, receives puzzling signs of something amiss through the remnant of his wife's (Natlenya) skirt which he has taken as a keepsake. For me, his reaction to these signs (wetness, renting) are quite subdued and therefore unrealistic.

Again, I recommend the series for young fantasy readers.

 In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

Glorifying God in the Secular Arts

Luke 15:11 - And he said, “A certain man had two sons. . .

Jesus told stories and by that we conclude that story-telling is a legitimate and noble practice. I recently read an article by one of my Facebook friends (E. Stephen Burnett) the title of which was How to Glorify God with Wizards, Captain America, and Spider-Man. It seems to me this friend has strong leanings toward a reformed perspective (influenced by Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck), and I anticipated a theological defense of what the title intimated. However, he surprised me, and though he indicated that he could provide such a defense, he opted against that and chose rather to show from his own experience how one may glorify God in that way. It was quite intriguing, and I am in full agreement not only with the premise, but also in the way in which he demonstrated it through his life’s experiences rather than a biblical treatment. Here is an example of those experiences:

To this day I can remember Peter Parker in Spider-Man 2’s final battle recalling the truth he had just learned and repeating it to a remorseful Dr. Octavius: “Sometimes to do what’s right, we need to be steady and give up the things we want the most — even our dreams.”
I can’t always say how, but that truth imaged by a fictional hero has aided my spiritual “revival” for years. I followed Spidey’s web all the way to the true story — God’s story — of the Hero who surrendered Himself to help people become the heroes they should be. To this day, I can credit the original Spider-Man films for helping save my marriage before it even began.

I was a little hesitant to present this example lest it be misunderstood that my friend’s theology saw Christ’s heroism at the cross as only an example by which others may become heroes as well. I know that is not the case, but it underscores a problem that is inherent with fictional heroes invented by the secular mind. They are horizontally oriented rather than vertically. They do not take their starting point in the biblical world and life view, but from the one which man devises out of his own resources, which are actually borrowed from God. As a result, though the hero may be powerfully inspiring and noble, and though he may illustrate to some measure what we find to be true from a biblical perspective, it is dubious at best. Not merely because of the finitude of the secular creator, but because of the tendency of such a one to create something that tends to exalt the creature rather than the Creator (cf Rom 1:25).
Spidey’s epiphany of the truth in Spider Man 2 is a powerful challenge to the movie-goer in the context of Dr. Octavius’s relentless and unmercifully violent drive to complete his dream at all costs. Even so, Spider-Man 3, in my opinion, is even more potent as it portrays the virtue of forgiveness in an evocative, nearly tear-jerking manner. How is it that a story written from an unbiblical world-view, whose setting itself is atheological (people live and work as though there is no God, regardless of any professed beliefs in the existence of God) can include such noble ideas?
The overarching answer is what theologians call common grace. It is grace that God has bestowed on all men alike, regardless of their relationship to him. Louis Berkhof explains that "[common grace] curbs the destructive power of sin, maintains in a measure the moral order of the universe, thus making an orderly life possible, distributes in varying degrees gifts and talents among men, promotes the development of science and art, and showers untold blessings upon the children of men.”[1]
Wizards, Captain America, and Spider-man are fantasy characters representative of a special type of literary art, and, as Berkhof noted, the ability to produce such art is a result of the distribtution of God’s gifts among men. These are gifts for which all should give God the honor, yet the unbelieving sinner can do so only in a superficial way because he does not know God through a faith in Jesus Christ resulting in a renewed mind and enlightened heart (Rom 12:2; 2 Cor 4:6; Eph 1:18; 4:23; Col 3:10). He may sense that there is a Higher Being who is responsible for his artistic greatness, and acknowledge that, but he does not sense that he should love that Higher Being with all of his heart, soul, mind, and strength (Luke 10:27). The gifted secular literary artist writes about what he knows to be true of right and wrong (Rom 2:14-15), but does not really know why it is true. He just knows it. He knows there is good and evil, and his God-given literary skill enables him to write in such wonderful imagery that these truths can come across very powerfully. And yet, unless the truths of his novel or screenplay or poetry are overtly grounded in the gospel, though they may persuade some, even unbelieving sinners, to outwardly alter their behavior in one degreee or another, they cannot transform from the inside out. Such stories may inhibit sinful behavior, but they cannot free from sin because there is no gospel in them. Their usefulness for true spiritual growth is profitable only for the Christian who recognizes the virtues as beliefs and behavior that are the result of a new birth which changes the heart (cf 2 Cor 5:17; Eph 4:24; Col 3:10) and for that reason he works them out in his life because he knows that it is God that works in him to do his good will (Phil 2:12-13).
How can secular man write such stories? It is because he is in touch with the predicament of this world and himself though he is not in touch with Creator of the world through his Son. Secular man is not unintelligent. He can observe and analyze. His sinfulness does not inhibit that, as intelligence is one of those gifts God disperses commonly among human beings. His observations and analysis are influenced by another common grace, which is the law written on the heart (Rom 2:14-15). He cannot help but sense the right and wrong in this world and judge it to be truly that, good and evil. There is no man-made story, tragedy or comedy, which is not shaped by the overall character of this present age – the conflict between good and evil (cf Gal 1:4; Rev 19:11-21). And though it provides opportunity for the secular man to put his twist on the true, the good, and the beautiful, it is only the Christian who can listen to it and discern the truths that underlie the story-world. As such, there is a legitimate place for the Christian not only to attend such movies as my friend alludes to, or read the stories that such movies are based on, but to carefully think about them and see what is in them that may help him, in light of God’s word, live up to the true gospel standard.



[1] L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Wm. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1939. p 434.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Francis Schaeffer Perspective #6 - Art Form's Versatility in Message Types



Perspective #6: Art forms can be used for any type of message from pure fantasy to detailed history.

If we recall the discussion in Perspective #1, Schaeffer ruled out the nature of art as exclusively an embodiment of a message. Rather, he contends, the art communicates the world-view of the artist. In that perspective, a message seems much less important than the aesthetic value or its ‘work-of-artness.’ But now, the usefulness of art as a communicator of a message comes to the fore. I don’t think this is a shift in his thinking, but simply coming around to what he tended to deemphasize (but not dismiss) in the earlier perspective.

Schaeffer recognizes that art does communicate a message. The question that I raise is what is the relation between the art and the message? Does the aesthetic value of art have the priority over the message it communicates? Schaeffer seems to think so (Perspective #1). The answer to that question controls what subject the artist focuses on, and how his artwork portrays that subject. If message has priority, an artist is going to be careful, perhaps in a tedious way, of not only what the subject is, but the way it is dealt with. If the art has the priority, the artist will probably do his work more through whim and fancy and self-gratification.

When we stand in front of any painting, we naturally look for something that is recognizable. When we stand in front of some paintings, we are initially struck by the craftsmanship of the work. The more exquisite the art, the more we are caught up in its beauty. We are initially not looking for a message. In other paintings, the art may be exquisite, but its message so powerfully obvious, that the message takes the prominence. In still other paintings, the art and the message seem to hit the viewer at the same time with equal force.

Consider Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 oil painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware. The artwork is top-notch, and its beauty and magnificence delights the eye. At the same time, one is equally struck by the drama of the moment as he beholds a confident, stoic Washington[1] at the head of the force. It conveys the character and emotion of the General at what was probably the darkest hour of the American Revolution. It undoubtedly depicted Washington as he was perceived by both soldier and citizen. Washington is at least part of the message, and it comes clearly across to the viewer. The technical quality is superb reinforcing the message. The message is there in all of its beauty because of the artwork. Both art and message have an equal impact. If there is a message in art, the profundity, clarity, and coherency of that message is dependent on the profundity, clarity, and coherency of the artwork itself. I think we can say the reverse is true as well.

For writers of Christian fiction and fantasy, the priority between the art and the message, and what mutual affect there is between the message and the art of our writing is not a small matter. It will control what we write about and how we write it. The gospel is a profound message, going deeper than any mystery of science and nature. The gospel is a wondrous message, soaring higher than any marvel the modern academician stands in awe of. If our writing is truly Christian, it should not be based on crass whim and fancy, and certainly not self-gratification (it's a feel-good story). It should plumb the gospel’s depths and reach for its stars. As for the writing itself – the author should strive to write as profoundly and as beautifully as the message. One does not offer a gem of great worth in a shoe box.

In a loose way, whim and fancy cannot help but appear in Christian fantasy if we think of it as pulling things out of the imagination that have no definable existence in reality. But it is not willy-nilly. There is care for what might show up in our writing, and diligent attention to the message behind the 'whim and fancy' of our imagination assures a fitting place for it in our story. Andrew Peterson's toothy cows add a delightful twist to his tale. Taking what is ordinarily an amiable figure in the young child's mind, he turns the friendly into the frightening by simply adding a slight deviation (the toothiness). The presence of the toothy cows adds another element of danger to an increasingly precarious adventure. It does that potently because it connects so well with the young reader. It faces a more stringent test - the adult reader. I think it will pass. I suspect it will evoke long forgotten impressions of his youthful imagination. It did for me.



[1] Undoubtedly, Washington had a stolid temperament that inspired confidence of those under him. Yet early on there were many who quit the war, so to speak, when their enlistments were up. They took their government issued rifles with them. When Washington met with his officers to go over the final details of the crossing on Christmas Eve, 1776, he may have exuded confidence, but in private he was not so. David McCullough writes, “Years later, [physician Benjamin] Rush would recall a private meeting with Washington at Buckingham, during which Washington seemed ‘much depressed.’ In ‘affecting terms,’ he described the state of the army. As they talked, Washington kept writing something with his pen on small pieces of paper. When one of them fell to the floor by Rush’s foot, he saw what was written: ‘Victory or Death.’ It was to be the password for the night.” 1776, Simon and Schuster, 2005.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Francis Schaeffer Perspective #5, Four Basic Standards to Apply to a Work of Art

Perspective #5: There are four basic standards that one must apply to a work of art: (a) technical excellence, (b) validity, (c) intellectual content, the world view which comes through, and (d) the integration of content and vehicle.

Schaeffer contends that a great artist should be recognized for his technical excellence regardless of the content or the world-view which comes through. I agree. Schaeffer uses painting to illustrate his meaning: color, form, balance, texture of the paint, the handling of lines, the unity of the canvas. The painting (or any kind of drawing for that matter) has a great many elements that go into its creation. Earlier in the essay, Schaeffer refers to these as symbolic vocabulary in an attempt to show the parallel with literature. This implies that art, whether graphic or literary, has a common vocabulary (as both say something intelligible) which is governed by ‘linguistic’ rules. Through these rules, the speech of art allows the artist to be creative and mimic (as an image bearer) the creativity of God (who spoke the words, “Light be!” and there was light). When we honor the pagan artist for his excellence, we are utltimately honoring the divine image in him and thereby the One after whom the image is patterned.

The potential for technical excellence resides in the secular[1] writer of speculative fiction because that is the way the Creator made him. If a secular writer has reached realms of excellence of which we stand in awe, he should be recognized. We should read his works not only for entertainment, but also that we may learn how to write better. Additionally, if he has written anything on how to write, it would behoove us to make good use of it.[2]

The second criterion, validity, is whether or not the artist is true to himself and his world-view, or whether he is doing his work for the sake of another.  If an artist paints or writes for the sake of a patron (which can be anybody or anything the artists wants to gain the approval of or have access to) his art has no validity.

I have often thought of how writing in a (pulp) art genre which is hugely popular and sells well (Christian Romance, for example; see C. S. Lakin’s post, Genre Versus Author Platform: Which Matters Most) might be a way to gain recognition for one’s real work, reflecting his real writing interests. To do so, according to this criterion, would discredit that work as a work of art. I agree, and if I am a purist about this business of writing, I won’t attempt to do so. Unless, of course, my interest changes which poses the challenge to actually write in a different genre to see if (a) I can actually do it, and (b) I might actually like it – it rings true to me. With regard to the romance novel, I think I am quite sure that neither (a) nor (b) would hold for me. But it may be worth looking into the market to see what sells and whether I might have an affinity for it.

The third criterion, intellectual content, is to assess the world-view that comes through the art. It must be judged in terms of a biblical world-view. A work of art should never be free from the judgment of the Word of God. The logic behind this is sound: if a work of art reflects the artist’s world-view then just as the thinking of all men, great and small, profound or superficial, is judged by God, and all will one day answer to God for their world-view, the art work itself is, therefore, subject to the same kind of judgment. In practice, I’m not quite sure what this means. What does it mean to pass judgment on a work of art? We have already granted the artist his honor if his work is excellent. Does it mean following the praise we deplore it for its message? I think that is allowable, but we must be careful that it does not open the door to defame the excellency of the work and the artist. How much that is possible, I’m not sure. It is certain that open judgment of the work is necessary because, as Schaeffer contends, the richer and greater the work, the more powerful it is in pressing home its message.

This holds true for speculative fiction. Much non-Christian science fiction and fantasy is rooted in evolutionary theory, and it seems easy for the Christian reader to ignore that. I enjoyed Carl Sagan’s novel Contact which is about man’s first detection of extra-terrestrial intelligence through the means advocated by the National Research Council (an electromagnetic signature). The whole premise of SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) is based on the high probability that intelligent life could have risen and developed elsewhere in the universe. The Drake Equation used to come up with the number[3] has evolutionary assumptions built into it. As entertaining as Contact was, and as technically appealing as it was, the caveat must be sounded by the Christian reviewer that the world-view that comes through is anti-biblical.

The fourth criterion is how well the artist has suited the vehicle to the message. “For works which are truly great, there is a correlation between the style and content.” As high fantasy, Lord of the Rings was written in a style that fit the epic character of the story. The imaginary world was best portrayed through a sophisticated and lofty literary style. Tolkien spent great detail in describing landscape and terrain, moving the story at its own pace (not rushed, but unfolding slowly like it does in real life), salt-and-peppered with proportionate amounts of royal and common dialogue, great battles, and personal struggles. Much of this had to do with the readership Tolkien had in mind. It was not a children’s fantasy like the Chronicles of Narnia, and though the Narnia stories have a sophistication of their own and are superbly written, they are still a different style.

Much of today’s young adult speculative fiction is written in a style that suits its audience, but it is not very sophisticated and there is little elegance. Instead, there is corniness, cartoonishness, and melodrama. Perhaps the author thinks that is the only thing that will appeal to the younger ones. I ask, so what? Give them something they can look back on in adulthood and see a beauty and elegance that appeals even then. A children’s story should never be outgrown by its readership. C. S. Lewis put it this way, “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last. A waltz which you can like only when you are waltzing is a bad waltz.”[4] In my opinion, Andrew Peterson’s Wing-feather Saga is the only modern Christian children’s saga that I have read that measures up to this criterion.






[1] I am using secular in a somewhat liberal way to include all who do not embrace Christ as Lord and Savior. Such ones may be theists of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but there is nothing in their claims or behavior to indicate they are of those whose hearts have been changed and are faithful followers of Christ. The world-view that comes through in their writing speaks volumes in this regard.
[2] I recommend Stephen King’s On Writing. I have read others, but I like his best because of the style, and also because I like his dinosaur analogy on how a story develops. One caveat: his language is coarse at times. If you’re looking for a more technical approach with lots of examples from modern day classics, I recommend Structuring Your Novel: From Basic Idea to Finished Manuscript by John D. Fitzgerald (Great Brain series) and Robert C Meredith. Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game) has written Character and Viewpoint, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, and is a contributor to Complete Guide to Writing Science Fiction: Volume One, First Contact.
[3]  Estimated by Sagan at 1,000,000 in our galaxy when he wrote Broca’s Brain (1974), ten times that now because of an estimated increase in the number of rotating planets around red dwarfs which are deemed to have a higher probability to support life.
[4] C. S. Lewis, “Three Ways of Writing for Children,” in On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, ed. Walter Hooper (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Janovich, Publishers, 1982), 33.