Saturday, June 26, 2010

Reflecting God’s Creation-Work in Our Writing

Man was created in God’s image and as such it is a certainty that writers, members of the race of men, are also created in his image. There are many things that go into the meaning of ‘God’s image’ but I want to dwell a little on that aspect in which the role of man as creator is akin to God who is The Creator.

Whatever one’s profession or craft may be, there is always some creativity that goes into it. Whether it be slinging garbage into a garbage truck, preparation of a dinner for a family of five, or the swinging of a bat to hit a ninety mile-an-hour fastball, there is creativity. Certainly, there are common rules one must abide by - put the garbage in the back of the truck, not the front; bring the water to a boil to cook the potatoes; keep your head down and eyes on the ball. But within the framework of those rules, there is also room to put your own stamp on it. I would surmise that slinging garbage could take on a variety of styles, but it is likely that room for creativity in that area is limited. But still there is room.

When it comes to writing, there is a vast panorama of possibilities. I think the fundamental reason is this: a story, from conception to completed work, has intrinsic parallels to the creation-work of God. God conceives of all creative possibilities at once and has done so eternally. At the time of creation (that is, that time when there was absolutely nothing but the Triune God himself, and then by divine fiat, there was something) God sovereignly chose to bring into being only some of those ideas. There was choice on his part; not an arbitrary choice, but a choice based on wisdom and knowledge so deep and mysterious, we cannot understand it except in a very small way. The actual bringing into existence was by speech – God spoke and it was. God’s word is a creating word, that is, it cannot help but bring into existence what is spoken.

The writer, the image-bearer of God, analogically creates; his creation-work parallels God’s. All writers analogically create. Whether Christian or pagan, they cannot help but do this because they cannot help but reflect God’s image.

The writer conceives of many possibilities as he contemplates the makings of his story - the world, the characters, the events and the interaction of all three with each other. He chooses some among the multitude of possibilities and abandons others. Our creating is merely analogical to God’s and as such, there is an incomparable difference between God’s creating and ours. God did not have to think about the possibilities in the sense of discovering them – they were always present in his mind. But we have to think of them, conjure them, so to speak, based on what we know and experience. These possible ideas are borrowed and temporal; God’s ideas are original and eternal. But regardless of the difference between our creating and God’s, there are still similarities, and the ideas behind the stories are just a part of it.

The writer, in a manner, brings into existence a world wherein his story unfolds. Obviously, by existence I do not mean in actuality. But we do bring about a world with which the reader of the story resonates. One might say that, in a certain way, the writer brings into actual existence an imaginary world. That sounds contradictory, but it really is not. I, along with millions of other readers, have found myself in the midst of such an imaginary world because the story itself has drawn me into it; through my imagination, I enter that world, and the events and characters take on a sense of reality. I can see it in my minds eye so vividly, that it feels real, it feels like I’m right there, observing and sensing what the imaginary characters themselves see and feel.

In God’s creation-work, the world was brought into existence by his powerful word. In our story-creation, the same thing happens, analogically. Our words create a fantasy existence which the reader experiences through his imagination.

God’s word is powerful, bringing about a handiwork that declares his glory. It is breathtaking. It is profound. God’s creative word places us physically within that handiwork, making us an integral part of it. We interact with it. Our story telling should mimic the divine word; it should produce a tale of fine artisanship, so powerful in the telling (and reading) of it, that the reader is drawn into it and experiences it.

As Christians, the world we create through our words should glorify God. This is done not only by transmitting unveiled biblical truth (there is no other kind of truth), but doing such in an imaginary world whose intricate parts are woven together through superb literary craftsmanship.

God created all-powerfully producing a magnificent creation marked by precision, order, and design. For God, this was effortless, the mere speaking of it into existence. We want to create an imaginary world that similarly exhibits precision, order, and design, but unlike God’s effortless speech, the creation of such a world takes exacting labor on our part. The writer must throw every ounce of care he has into constructing phrases, sentences, paragraphs that knit seamlessly a believable world. This does not mean flowery or witty. It means realism. The world must be imaginatively real, as vivid as the one the reader walks into when he opens the front door and steps out. It takes careful development of character and voice, of events and their interrelation to other events and characters. It cannot be shoddy, superficial, wooden, hackneyed, or stereotypical.

Perhaps, Christian fantasy by its nature has the most fertile possibilities available. It possesses great opportunities, and as image-bearers of God and saints by his grace, we must produce the very best, excelling beyond our secular peers. In my estimation, an undesirable portion of current-day Christian fantasy for the young falls far short of such a standard. The Christian fantasy writer for the young must create an imaginary world in which the reader cannot help but slip into, where the biblical truth is unequivocal and without fuzziness, exhibiting intelligence, skill, and craft. It should be timeless and enduring, fascinating the youthful reader on into adulthood. As a corollary of this, it should appeal and charm the reader of any age. But most of all, as the material universe itself exclaims God’s glory, our fictional world should likewise point back to the Ultimate Creator and exalt him:

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.

Psalm 19:1-4 (ESV)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

On Fantasy Christ Figures

I'm reading a Christian fantasy novel by a well-known (among Christian fantasy lovers, that is) and award-winning author whom I won't identify for now; I'll just refer to him (the old-fashioned generic masculine that could be either male or female) as Author-X. Someday, perhaps, I'll name names, but not now.

It's Author-X's first novel and that may explain the low quality of the writing. I cannot count the times I have had to lay the book down out of disgust or despair, often both. I suspect that the author's debut novel came at a time when Christian fantasy was an even less appreciated genre than it is now (gone are the days of Lewis and Tolkien). Because it was new and different, it was also exciting. But, in my opinion, the writing itself falls well below an acceptable level.

We authors of Christian fantasy must strive to be the best, better than our secular peers. With J. K. Rowling in the mix, that is an extremely difficult task. Not that we should seek to mimic her style, but we can study her and perhaps find something useful.

I am in the third quarter of the book, and I'm beginning to find something else that is disturbing. I may be completely off the mark, and might find after more reading that my first take on the matter is simply wrong. It has to do with one of the characters that has unmistakeable features of a Christ figure. To be sure, there is no one-to-one correspondence between the fantasy figure and the Christ of the Bible. Perhaps if there were, I wouldn't be so concerned; I would expect that the figure would be more closely aligned with the Christ of sacred scripture, and presented in the way the authors of the gospels wrote about him.

But I find Author-X's character romanticized, handsome, always smiling, playful, all too ready to reach out and stroke another in an effort to comfort, or show concern. Here is the reason this bothers me, and what I say here not only goes for any literature that seeks to portray Christ in any detail, but also (perhaps even more so) for cinema.

Christ is the revelation of God.

John 1:18 succinctly puts it this way,

"The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him."

The word 'declared' is the same Greek word that theologians and biblical scholars use to describe the manner in which the text of the Bible is examined so that, as much as is possible, its meaning is elicited accurately and fully. The word is exegete. Christ exegetes the Father, unpacks the character, nature, judgment, will, power, etc. of the First Person of the Trinity. When Philip asked Christ to show them the Father, Jesus responded,

"He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, 'Show us the Father'?", John 14:9.

Everything that Christ did was revelatory of the Father. His body language, facial expressions, speech, choice of words, etc. was all revelatory. John was very careful to bring that out in his gospel and it is no wonder that he begins his first canonical epistle with a reference to his (and the other apostle's) familiarity with these things:

"That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of Life...that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us..." I John 1:1,3.

If we attempt to portray Christ, whether in the imagery of our fantasy writing or on the stage or in cinema, do we not run the risk of conveying something about him (and therefore, of the Father) that is simply not true, possibly even blasphemous?

I remember watching the movie, Ben Hur, as a youth, and how Cecil B DeMille handled the appearances of Christ. There was never a shot of his face, and if the Christ figure was viewed in full, it was always from behind, motionless (except perhaps a slow turning of the head as he watched Ben Hur from a distance just before the Sermon on the Mount), giving little to decipher about the incarnate Son of God.


I think as Christian fantasy writers, we ought to steer clear of such dangerous territory. Let's not make the King of kings and Lord of lords reveal anything more than what the written revelation of God reveals.