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.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Francis Schaeffer Perspective #4, Art is not Sacred

Perspective #4: The fact that something is a work of art does not make it sacred.

Schaeffer’s point here is that the greatness of the work of art does not validate that world view of the artist. This is a caution against letting the power of the art blind the viewer to any distortion or lack of truthfulness about the way things are as portrayed by the art. I think song can illustrate this point quite well. Song has a powerful impact on the whole makeup of a person. It seems to awaken a sensitivity within the psyche that makes one susceptible to the truth-claims of the song. Song is the combination of musical instrument(s), style, lyrics, and the personal touch of the one(s) who perform. Together, these components can produce something that keeps coming back long after the original hearing of the work. The message of the lyrics play again and again in one’s head, and the music with its melody, harmony, rhythm, and beat reinforces that message. The 1973 rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, is a case in point. I have never seen its performance, but I have heard much of the music to know that the Jesus of the opera is a phantom, and a dangerous one who destroys the imagery and truth of the Jesus of the Four Gospels. The tune was catchy and resonated with the lyrics.

Jesus Christ
Jesus Christ
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ
Jesus Christ
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ
Do you think you're what they say you are?
Jesus Christ
Do you think you're what they say you are?

Tell me what you think
About your friends at the top
Now who d'you think besides yourself
Was the pick of the crop?
Buddah was he where it's at?
Is he where you are?
Could Muhammmed move a mountain
Or was that just PR?
Did you mean to die like that?
Was that a mistake or
Did you know your messy death
Would be a record breaker?

Contrast that with Man of Sorrows (Philip P. Bliss, 1875):

“Man of Sorrows,” what a name
For the Son of God who came
Ruined sinners to reclaim!
  Hallelujah! what a Savior!

Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned He stood;
Sealed my pardon with His blood;
  Hallelujah! what a Savior!

Guilty, vile, and helpless, we,
Spotless Lamb of God was He;
Full redemption—can it be?
  Hallelujah! what a Savior!

Lifted up was He to die,
“It is finished!” was His cry;
Now in heaven exalted high;
  Hallelujah! what a Savior!

When He comes, our glorious King,
To His kingdom us to bring,
Then anew this song we’ll sing
  Hallelujah! what a Savior!

The psalms and hymns of our Sunday worship are a powerful force, and the church must be ever careful in the theology of its lyrics. There are some hymns, whose theology or egocentricity I find so offensive, I refuse to sing though all others around me participate.

Because the power of the art is so influential in pressing home the world-view it contains, the Christian artist must be careful not to portray inadvertently a perspective that is unbiblical. Christian speculative fiction is especially in danger. Take, for example, a Christ figure. Aslan from the Chronicles of Narnia is such a figure. Is there anything in Aslan’s behavior, speech, mood, or countenance that could portray a Christ that is unbiblical. True, we cannot control the imagination of the reader, but we should take care not to give anything questionable that the imagination can dwell on.

This danger is heightened when the speculative writing is turned into cinema with the wondrous graphics it has today. The imagination is far more passive in taking on the imprint of what is physically seen and heard. That is what I found so disturbing about the Passion of the Christ (2004, directed by Mel Gibson) and it is what I so much appreciated about Ben Hur (1959, directed by William Wyler). In The Passion, the body language, facial expressions, and mood made Christ, the Lamb without blemish, to be no different than any other (sinful) human – there was not the beauty of holiness that marked the Christ of the gospels. In Ben Hur, one never saw the face of Christ. Only once was there a full body shot, and it was from behind when Christ is about to deliver the Sermon on the Mount. A sacred respect about the character and manner of the Messiah was maintained. This is not a small matter when we consider that Christ revealed (exegeted, John 1:18) the Father, and we may assume that he did this in the minutest detail of his speech, facial expressions, and mannerism.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Francis Schaeffer's Perspective #3: Continuity with Words and Syntax

Perspective #3. In all forms of writing, both poetry and prose, it makes a tremendous difference whether there is a continuity or a discontinuity with the normal definitions of words in normal syntax. 

In this perspective, Schaeffer uses both literature and painting as examples. It is easier to comprehend his point by first considering a picture. Abstract art will have shapes and colors but does not communicate anything concretely
meaningful. One may look at the art and see something familiar. For example, in this picture, I see a fish feeding. But I also see the mouth and chin of a child; and a giant hair follicle or maybe Larry the Cucumber. In abstract art, one sees intriguing and aesthetically appealing shapes and colors, but they have no meaning except what the observer gives to them, a meaning that comes out of an association between what he sees in the art and what he knows as real and has a meaning which everyone agrees on.

Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce, might be considered abstract art in prose.[1] Jabberwocky, by Lewis Carroll, less so. It is classified as a nonsense poem, but  does have enough sense to it that the killing of a monster is not missed. Its appeal (and clarity also) is heightened when read aloud.
Akin to totally abstract art is art that has identifiable forms in it, but are arranged in such a way that in a casual glance one’s mind does not detect anything amiss; but then, on closer scrutiny, they defy meaning. The graphic art of Maurits Cornelis Escher is an example. In his painting, Relativity (1953), there are a number of stairways and windows that in themselves make perfect sense. But there are people walking up and down them in ways that are impossible and therefore make no sense. For example, the stair at the top of the picture has two persons on it facing the same direction and nearly at the same point, but one is moving up the steps while the other is going down them. We are imaginatively torn as we try to conceive of both true at the same time. We are trying to turn the illogical visuals into something logical, and it gives rise to a frustrating feeling of helplessness because what seems to make sense at first suddenly becomes impossible and thereby has no sense at all. Prose that mimics this kind of art can produce the same frustration.

Schaeffer does not see such art as intrinsically immoral or anti-Christian, but simply that it loses a dimension of communication.[2] Here we are brought back to the point that communication in art is significant, and if so, it increases its value. Communication is important, and it implies a message. It is message that writers of speculative fiction (or any fiction) must give care to. Carelessness or insenstivity in the use of vocabulary, syntax, and grammar will affect the clarity and possibly the meaning of the message. It is not simply words arranged according to rules of grammar and syntax. It is more. Stephen King made the astute observation, “Take any noun. Put it together with any verb, and you have a sentence. It never fails.”[3] The noun and verb follow the rules of grammar and syntax. We may think that all sentences with just a noun and verb say little – except the Johannine observation, Jesus wept. That simple sentence is a jewel whose beauty is magnified by the contextual earth it lies in.

Consider the noun Frog and put it with the verb sings - Frog sings. Does the sentence say something? We know there are no such things as singing frogs, except imaginary ones. A singing frog makes no sense. Are we to say that a story about a singing frog has no value because of the unlikelihood (really, impossibility) of any frog having the ability to sing. Warner Brothers introduced Michigan J Frog in a Looney Tune cartoon on December 31, 1955 entitled, One Froggy Evening
If you’re as old as I am, you likely saw it in its debut. The animated feature was a speculative masterpiece, and it did say something – this world is cursed and our best plans go awry. The humor may have dulled that point, but it was there. A singing frog makes no sense, but a story about a singing frog can make a lot of sense. That is why the Chronicles of Narnia makes sense. Talking beavers are illogical, but they can say things that are profoundly true. Speculative fiction uses the illogical, but it does so in such a way that a message is communicated. Speculative fiction is not abstract art, and it should not be art that frustrates because it is imaginatively perplexing.

[1] “The entire book is written in a largely idiosyncratic language, consisting of a mixture of standard English lexical items and neologistic multilingual puns and portmanteau words, which many critics believe attempts to recreate the experience of sleep and dreams. Owing to the work's expansive linguistic experiments, stream of consciousness writing style, literary allusions, free dream associations, and its abandonment of the conventions of plot and character construction, Finnegans Wake remains largely unread by the general public.” Wikipedia Article, FinnegansWake.

[2] Schaeffer writes, “If there is no continuity with the way in which language is normally used, then there is no way for a reader or an audience to know what the author is saying. . . When, therefore, there is no attempt on the part of an artist to use the symbolic vocabulary at all, then communication is impossible here, too. There is then no way for anyone to know what the artist is saying,” 37-38.

[3] Stephen King, On Writing.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Francis Schaeffer’s Perspective #2: The Strength of Art Forms

This is the second article in a series on Francis A. Schaeffer's "Perspectives on Art" in The Christian Imagination, ed. Leland Ryken (Colorado Springs, Colorado: Waterbrook Press, 2002).

Perspective #2. Art forms add strength to the world which shows through, no matter what the world view is or whether the world view is true or false.

Rembrandt’s Carcass of Beef serves to illustrate how the form of art adds strength to the world which it manifests.

“Rembrandt’s art causes us to see the side of beef in a concentrated way, and, speaking for myself, after looking and looking at this picture, I have never been able to look at a side of beef in a butcher shop with the superficiality I did before.” (p 37).

Unfortunately, Schaeffer did not go into a little more detail about the differences in the way he looked at a beef carcass before and after the Rembrandt experience. I think the proverb ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ has some bearing on this. Looking at art is subjective. No two persons will stand in front of the Carcass of Beef and see the same thing. An educated eye will look at art differently from the way it looks at the world which the art reflects. Even the uneducated eye – to see a reproduction of the real world from the hand of the artist alone says something, not only about the artist, but the real world. There is intrigue over why the artist chose the subject and how he transferred what he sees onto the canvas. The final art product carries the full weight of that intrigue.

The art form of fiction shares the nature of the art form of the Rembrandt.  The page is the canvas on which the story is painted and the words are the oils applied with the skillful strokes of grammar and syntax. The writer produces a story that has its ties with the real and ordinary, and places it before the reader ‘in a concentrated way.’  

Schaeffer kept looking and looking at the painting. It had a wondrous appeal. I think, however, the bare fact it was hanging in the Louvre with Rembrandt’s name on it might have raised the appeal several degrees. The works of the masters, or even lesser ones of still lofty reputation, evoke a prejudiced eye. Perhaps the mystique of the artist himself heightens one’s sensitivity to see greatness when it would otherwise be missed. There are artists who are missed even though their works are great because they do not have the celebrity. This holds true for many writers, especially Christian, and to put a finer point on it, Christian speculative fiction writers.[1]

Regardless of the celebrity element, I think we may assume that Rembrandt’s art is capable of having a profound impact in precisely the way Schaeffer hints because it is focused (concentrated). What Schaeffer saw was a result of Rembrandt’s ingenious eye scrutinizing the hanging beef in a way that others do not; perhaps, cannot. Not only his perception, but also his touch makes the difference – a photograph of the same side of beef would not bring out the same subtleties, unless that photo was the art work of a professional photographer whose use of light and dark and angle reveals things that a mere random shot would not.

Schaeffer observes that the side of beef phenomenon holds for literature, that ‘good prose as an art form has something that bad prose does not’ and ‘poetry has something good prose does not.’ The something is the side of beef factor, the thing that grabs one’s attention and increasingly occupies it. I agree in the general direction this line of thought takes. However, I balk at the idea that poetry has something that good prose does not, and I think that much of the reason has to do with me, a left-brained reader. I rarely come away with something moving or epiphanic from poetry. I struggle with Frost and Shakespeare. For me, the poetic form more often than not obscures and confuses. That is my experience and must own up to it. But good prose, ah. Good prose has quite a different effect. It sometimes reaches the intensity of hearing Mozart or Bach or Beethoven – it moves. It opens my imagination to nuances of the truth known and heretofore unknown, and its meaning becomes intellectually and emotionally aesthetic.

Obviously, good prose does far more than bad prose, but it is a point worth making. It is a strong reminder to authors of Christian fiction that their prose needs to be top notch. None of us is a Lewis or a Tolkien when it comes to speculative fiction, regardless of those dastardly over-zealous reviews that compare our work to theirs. I had one refer to The Oerken Leaves (now rewritten as The Oerken Tree) as C. S. Lewis meets Mark Twain. Another compared it to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Another wrote, ‘If you like Lewis and Tolkien, you’re going to  love this.’ They all make me cringe because it just is not so. Yet, I hope that The Oerken Tree is good prose, and I am not so sure it (or your work) has to be worthy to sit side by side with the Greats in order to be considered top notch. But it surely needs to be several huge steps in that direction. In my opinion, Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga is there. Polivka’s Blaggard’s Moon should be sitting at least on the same shelf.

There are many Christian young adult fantasy works that have become quite popular in the last decade, and their authors are hailed as great writers. But I think their writings fall in the category of bad prose simply because it is bad art. The good word-artist paints with elegance and beauty. It does not have to be like the masters, but there should be some breath-taking moments in them. Many do not rise much above finger painting and paint by numbers. Few of us bring the reader into a Carcass of Beef experience.

[1] In my opinion, there is not many current day works of this type being produced that is worthy of celebrity fame simply because the writing is only average or slightly better or worse. On the other hand, there are a few who are quite worthy, but the ascription of ‘Christian’ and ‘speculative’ hinder their recognition. It is difficult to gain acknowledgement, as any writer knows, no matter how good the writing. Christian speculative fiction especially. The Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy (CSFF) blog tour has been promoting the genre since 2006. Rebecca Luella Miller administrates the tour. She also administers Speculative Faith, which features articles by authors and agents in the genre. The CSFF blog tour features a novel every month in which the members that participate post a review of the novel or a discussion of something closely related to it. Some provide an interview with the author. Typically, the participating member can receive a courtesy copy of the novel for the review. It is a great way to add to one’s library. The tour lasts three days. The critiques, for the most part, are very insightful and objective. If you think you might want to join the tour, visit here.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Reflections on Francis Schaeffer’s Perspectives on Art

Francis A. Schaeffer presents eleven distinct perspectives[1] from which a Christian can evaluate works of art. Schaeffer uses literature and painting as primary examples of how his eleven perspectives are used. I want to look at these perspectives in a series of articles and consider their value to the Christian artist, especially for the writer of Christian speculative fiction.

Perspective #1. A work of art has a value in itself. 

Schaeffer ranks this as the most important of all perspectives, and yet I find no clear explanation of what he means. His summarizing statement is tautologous, “Perspective number one is that a work of art is first of all a work of art.” (p 37). The concept of a 'work of art' could be translated, a 'work of beauty,' or a 'work that elicits enjoyment.' Schaeffer writes, "Art is not something we merely analyze or value for its intellectual content. It is something to be enjoyed. The Bible says that the art work in the tabernacle and the temple was for beauty."[2] Given this, Schaeffer places a premium on the aesthetic value of art, making the intellectual content of lesser worth. 

He reinforces this by offering three possible meanings concerning the nature of a work of art the first two of which, in his mind, are invalid. These are (1) the view that art does not say anything and cannot be analyzed, it is simply there; it is art for art’s sake (2) the view that art is the embodiment of a message about the world or man or artist – anything; the fallacy here, in Schaeffer’s thinking, is that this view reduces art to an intellectual statement; (3) the view that the artist’s own world view or view of reality is perceived through a body of work which the artist produces; a body of work is necessary to provide a sufficient sample avoiding a one-sided and limited evaluation.

Given that third point, one wonders if an artist who produces only one work can truly be called an artist, and his work, a work of art. Consider Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949) whose novel, Gone With the Wind, was the only one she wrote. She was a journalist and one might contend that her journalistic writings would offer a greater sample. But they would likely be disqualified seeing that that kind of writing is analytical, informative – in a word, intellectual. Perhaps Gone With the Wind in itself provides ample material (423,575 words[2]) on which to draw some conclusions.

Consider also that if the ascertainment of the artist’s view of reality is a necessary component to evaluating a work of art (as a work of art), where does speculative fiction stand? I cannot be absolutely certain, but I think J K Rowling’s view of reality would not include magic and all the incidentals, though the tale of Harry Potter itself does. The magic and all its attendant paraphernalia is pertinent to the meaning of the story. Assuming that speculative fiction tells a tale which reflects the author’s philosophical outlook (Good always defeats Evil; Love endures; Suffering is good and necessary for Victory), it is particularly problematic. All fiction is make-believe, but speculative fiction is make-believe within make-believe and, therefore, has an added layer of complexity in discerning the author’s (artist’s) view of what this world (cosmos) is all about. To qualify a bit, I am talking about a make-believe that has little to do with our world. An example would be George MacDonald’s (1824-1905) Phantastes, whose message is slippery,[3] I think, if there be an over-arching message at all. It does offer glimpses here and there into MacDonald’s perception of things. For example, Cosmo and the mirror allow MacDonald to give a little of his thought about the significance of art and the imagination.[4]

Rowling’s Harry Potter is not nearly so enigmatic, however. There is not much difference between the wizard world of Harry and the muggle world. The central intelligent beings in both are humans and all the frailties and pleasantries of the one world apply to the other. We ordinary humans can empathize with the extraordinary world of witchcraft and wizardry because at bottom, there’s really not that much difference. The fantastical element of speculative fiction is a perfect fit for mystique and intrigue, which are a part of its beauty and appeal; it elicits enjoyment. The mystique and intrigue of the non-muggle realm provide Rowling with a story-world that likely rivets the attention of the reader and gains his imagination and empathy in a more zealous way, thereby more keenly acclimating that reader to her world-view. That is an important principle for the Christian writer of speculative fiction. You are writing to entertain, but you are also writing to grab the reader and hold him down so that he cannot help but hear what you are saying. This assumes that all our story writing will have a message, which I think is true.

Another thought: Though art should not be reduced to an intellectual statement it cannot be divorced from it either. Is not an author’s world-view and the communication of that through his artwork, intellectual? Not as a formulaic expression, certainly, but it does say something that requires intelligent consideration. In order for it to be intelligible at all, it must be meaningful and capable of interpretation. It must say something intelligent. Given that, it seems the value of all art is necessarily bound to its ability to say something that is intelligible, and therefore has meaning, and meaning implies a message. Art is bound to an inherent message.

Schaeffer does not deny that art has meaning. In fact, he would say it does, but he apparently thinks it is secondary to the art. This is to say that the medium of the message has greater value than the message itself. One may ask, If there is no message, what justifies the medium? Without a message, there is no necessity for a means to convey that message.

The word (message) of God, for example, has a medium: inscripturated human language (in its final form for the present evil age - yes, I am a cessationist). There would be no justification for a Bible if there were no special revelation from God. One could even argue that human language is necessary because it is analogous to divine language (it is a part of our image bearing capacity), and in and of itself is revelatory (points us to God as Language, especially as Language incarnated in the Word - Jesus Christ). Language is a medium necessitated by the need for communicating a message, and most of all, for communicating the truths of God. 

In like fashion, message necessitates art (in whatever form) as a means to communicate that message. I don't think it is the reverse. The message is prior to the art. I think a better point to make is that because message and medium are congruently necessary, reflection should take us into the synergistic relationship between the message and its medium in terms of their power and beauty, and consider both to be of tantamount importance in determining the value of art.

How great is the divide between the art and the world view of the artist? How interdependent are they? Another way to ask this is, What is the coherency between beauty and content, entertainment and message? This has a special bearing on all Christian speculative fiction (or any fiction). The idea that one can write merely for entertainment is questionable with regard to its validity or even its possibility. This does not mean I think entertainment is overrated. Part of the quality of the medium is its ability to hold the reader's attention agreeably, or simply stated, to entertain. It is that 'mystique and intrigue' as entertainment that gives speculative fiction an advantage in its value. But if the medium of art is justified only if there is a message, then we cannot write merely for entertainment's sake. Rather, we must use the entertaining value of speculative fiction to bring home the message. 

[1] Francis Schaeffer, “Perspectives on Art,” in The Christian Imagination, ed. Leland Ryken (Colorado Springs, Colorado: Waterbrook Press, 2002), 35-41.
[2]  ibid., p 35.
[3] Compare J K Rowlings’ Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the largest in the series, at 257,045 words.
[4] In The Fantastic Imagination, MacDonald poses the question, Must a fairy-tale have meaning? MacDonald answers, “Everyone...who feels the story, will read its meaning after his own nature and development: one man will read one meaning in it, another will read another.” Does this reveal a relativist’s world-view?
[5] Cosmo’s reaction to the mirror: "What a strange thing a mirror is! and what a wondrous affinity exists between it and a man's imagination! For this room of mine, as I behold it in the glass, is the same, and yet not the same. It is not the mere representation of the room I live in, but it looks just as if I were reading about it in a story I like. All its commonness has disappeared. The mirror has lifted it out of the region of fact into the realm of art; and the very representing of it to me has clothed with interest that which was otherwise hard and bare; just as one sees with delight upon the stage the representation of a character from which one would escape in life as from something unendurably wearisome. But is it not rather that art rescues nature from the weary and sated regards of our senses, and the degrading injustice of our anxious everyday life, and, appealing to the imagination, which dwells apart, reveals Nature in some degree as she really is, and as she represents herself to the eye of the child, whose every-day life, fearless and unambitious, meets the true import of the wonder-teeming world around him, and rejoices therein without questioning?” Phantastes, p 78