The Desperate Need for Heroes


Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings trilogyThe annual Christian Booksellers Association convention (now with the utterly ghastly new name “International Christian Retail Show”—boy, that’s a blog entry in itself!) is running this week and it’s started off with a bang due to a speech given by Andy Crouch (who?) that called Christian fiction writers to abandon writing escapist novels and start addressing “reality.” His assertion comes from watching airline travelers; he observes that they have traded their books for playing solitaire on a notebook computer or cell phone. From this he posits that too many of us have traded gritty life for virtual reality:

It’s worth pausing and asking ourselves whether what we are looking for when we read, what our readers are looking for, is not escape and seclusion. This is a constant Christian temptation. We are prone to create our Christian virtual reality. I’m sure that right here at the International Christian Retail Show you’ll be able to meet good-hearted folks creating Christian video games. Isn’t that appealing? A world, suitably tweaked and put at your disposal for your entertainment, where Christianity actually works! Just obey the Christian rules and you win the game. A world where prayers are always answered! A world where sin doesn’t weave itself so tightly around even our best efforts! It is so tempting to strategically simplify, to create a fictional reality in which things just seem to work better than they do in this world.

But to do that is to deny the Incarnation, to deny that God became real in this world, in this very world where God does not seem real to many people much of the time. To create Christian virtual reality is to choose escape and seclusion and thus become entirely irrelevant to the heart of the gospel, which is God entering into this very world in order to liberate it from its captivity to itself.

So I plead with you, as a reader, as a fellow follower of the Incarnate One, as someone who daily wonders how this gospel to which I am giving my life can possibly be true, I plead with you not to tell me stories which improve on the world. Instead, tell me stories about the world as it is, strange and real and full of grace.

Like so many Christian commentators today, Crouch understands a problem exists. However, I believe his analysis and solution are profoundly wrong. It is not that people have abandoned books and movies (box office numbers continue their free-fall, too) because they are escapist, but because they aren’t escapist enough!

I’ve given up on most mainstream fiction because I can no longer stomach anti-heroes. Every character in every novel I have read lately is an amalgam of relativistic “ideals” that amounts to nothing more than a shell inhabited by moralistic flotsam and jetsam. You can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys because the bad guy has his subversively “noble” cause, while the “good guy” has more moral failings than the denizens of Sodom.

Now we might live in a postmodern age that attempts to call black “white” or even “chartreuse,” but I can tell you straight up that people are bored stiff with fictional characters that have few admirable traits, no transcendence over the rest of skulking humanity, no divine fire in their bellies that compels them to rise up and let the world know that they are different.

I’m shifting to film here because it provides a more concentrated and widely-known pool of examples to choose from, but why do people love the Star Wars movies and flock to them even when Episodes 1-3 were acknowledged by everyone as having awful dialog, wooden acting, and ham-handed direction? After watching a great musical like Singing in the Rain or The Sound of Music, why do so many people let their first comment be, “Why don’t they make movies like that anymore?” Why did the first Matrix movie inspire devotion, the second ambivalence, and the last one contempt?

It’s all about heroes. People are dying for heroes. People long for happy endings in which the clearly drawn hero with a heart of gold vanquishes the bad guy—a bad guy so bad he’d even eat his own mother for breakfast. The average guy in the average house in the average suburban tract has had his fill of anti-heroes. He doesn’t want someone who looks like him, struggles like him, and in the end is no better for any of his trials. He wants to see someone grow and learn and kick the bad guy’s ass in the last scene. If Yoda had a penchant for picking up little green call girls and knocking back the Tatooine hooch whenever he had the chance, no one would be cheering, and no one would be standing in line to see another Star Wars film. The Wachowski brothers forgot that the reason people liked The Matrix was more than just the cunning special effects, it was the fact that the good guys were good and believed in something greater than themselves. When in The Matrix Reloaded Morpheus’ altruism was demeaned as being little more than religious fanaticism, you could feel the collective audience sigh of “Well, there goes the series!”

What some label as mere escapism, the majority of people consider to be their one chance to see the good triumph over evil. When our TV news programs depict one hopeless scene of brutality, disease, and loathsomeness after another, why would we want to subject ourselves to reading the same in our fiction or watching it on our screens? People don’t want to see any conflict in a character like Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings other than Do I kill that orc with my broadsword or with my dagger? We don’t want all his moral failings paraded before us; we want him to grow into his kingship. Because if he can, maybe we can, too.

Has anyone asked the solitaire player on Crouch’s flight why he plays solitaire instead of reading the latest novel? Could it be that the solitaire player prefers an electronic card game because it contains the promise that the game could be won? Virtual reality at least allows the one immersed in it to possibly come out on top, to vanquish some imagined foe, to live out the heroism that is so lacking in our daily lives.

This is no endorsement for John Eldredge’s fatally flawed Wild at Heart, but the reason that book resonated with so many disaffected men is that it put out a call to heroism, a call lacking in much of our culture because we have for too long ceded our imaginations to anti-heroes and protagonists of questionable morality. Our culture screams, “There are no heroes!” We are told by the media elite that happy endings are for simpletons. Yet, who reading this today would want to come to the end of his/her life and NOT want it to end happily?

I find Crouch’s appeal to Christian writers to write more fiction that is rooted in the funk of this world and to avoid obvious happy endings to be a capitulation to the spirit of the age. It is to take our injunction to think on what is noble, pure, and right and turn it into just another dark day in the gutter. You can claim that it’s all about mystery and grace, but if that amazing grace doesn’t lead us to a heavenly home where we’ll be for a lot longer than ten thousand years, then Christian writers will be offering their readers the same bankrupt worldview that the world is offering. Our identity as Christians will be lost amid the many secular and religious voices that take a look at the vagaries of our existence and can only shrug and say, “Man, life is tough, isn’t it?”

The incarnation that Crouch uses as his proof text does not end with the dead Christ hanging on His cross. Paul himself said that if that is the whole of it, we are people to be most pitied. No! That dead Christ—our very archetypal hero—overcame Death itself! The stone is rolled away from the tomb! Jesus was the victor then and will be the victor to come when He and His righteous legions destroy all the powers of Darkness!

If our creative writing doesn’t regularly reflect this final triumph of good over evil, then all we have handed our readers is another maudlin dose of despair. I for one am not willing to write books that fail to offer this triumph; I know that you are not wanting to read them, either.

{Image: Aragorn of The Lord of the Rings trilogy from New Line Cinema}

Rock { Christian Author } Hard Place


Mightier than the swordI'm a writer.

I know it may not show in the slapdash blog posts I toss up here, but it's true. As part of a testosterone-laden men's writing group—The Write Brothers—I have actual published authors attesting to the fact that I can string a few words together intelligibly. Even more to that point, I own a freelance writing company that covers everything from tech manuals to marketing copy to s/f novels. You name it; I write it. I've even been known to pen a highly regarded poem now and then. (Although the state of "poetry for cash" is more like "You pay us and we'll publish your poem." Somewhere, a red wheelbarrow is rusting.)

The allusion in my not-so-subtle title does not mean I will go the way of Hemingway, but it does mean that to be a Christian writer is to be a denizen of a tiny world on which a civil war rages. Piper, Sproul, Grudem, Warren, Hybels, and all those name authors don't have a clue because they're writing NON-fiction. They're oblivious to the artillery, the bloodshed, and the cries of the wounded. But as for me, well, I got drafted into the the war simply for my desire to write novels. And it ain't pretty.

I've got three novels at various stages of development, with one soon to see the conclusion and final edits, so even writing this on my blog could forever doom my work to the dark drawers of my Sixties-era desk. Yet I have to say it: being a Christian fiction writer is a lesson in compromise and multiple personality syndrome.

The irony of all this is that the market for Christian fiction is absolutely booming. These are the glory days for anyone trying to sell into what is known as the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) market. Publishers are scrambling to pump up the Christian novel jam, so if there's a genre you like to read, expect to see it soon. Someone realized a couple years ago that Christians actually READ fiction, and with the Lord of the Rings series of movies/books reaping big press in Christian circles, two and two fused together. Mix in a little Mel Gibson movie and even the secular publishers starting thinking, You know, that's a pretty substantial market we've been ignoring. They're even starting up Christian imprints just to tap the 22 million people who bought a copy of that little book called The Purpose Driven Life.

So Dan, why the "tortured artist" schtick?

My current novel project started out in the secular counterpart to the CBA, the American Booksellers Association (ABA.) I was hoping to write a science fiction title that would bring strong Christian themes and symbolism to secular readers first and Christian readers second, all without suffering from what I call "The Sledgehammer Effect." If you read enough Christian fiction, I don't have to explain this. Wink, wink—we've all had that little Gospel train steam out of the book and roll right over our cerebrums.

But along the way, this novel changed. Every time I wanted to portray my believing heroine doing the kind of things that Christians regularly do—pray, read the Bible, and so on—the scene automatically excluded the book from the secular market. Any editor reading the work would say, "But this belongs on our Christian imprint!" and there it would be sent to be branded a work of "Christian fiction," forever shuttled out of reach of the very readers I was trying to capture. The mere mention of the devoted acts we do every day and that's all he wrote.

It struck me that if C.S. Lewis were writing his Space Trilogy (the inspiration for my market ploy) today, there would be no chance that a secular publishing house would touch the books. Out of the Silent Planet would be on Tyndale or Zondervan faster than you could say, "Peretti," and that would be that. Despite the fact that your average Barnes & Noble or Borders has been increasing their Christian non-fiction titles, Christian fiction still has a long way to go for shelf space in a secular market.

So I quit the battle and went for a CBA title. It's so CBA right now that Stephen King himself could not modify it into an ABA title. However, while I managed to avoid The Sledgehammer Effect magnificently, I only opened another can of worms.

The ABA is tough for Christian novelists to crack unless they're willing to veil all their religious references. But the CBA presents its own problems because now you have to be all things to all Christians. I think you can already see the problem.

Even as the romance genre has an iron-clad list of essentials, both do's and dont's, the Christian fiction list of acceptable novelist behaviors resembles the U.S. Tax Code in its complexity. The list of traps is endless and just finding an audience that won't stab you with your Mont Blanc for violating a key doctrinal belief of theirs is nightmarish.

Want to write a novel that features a positive Christian character who speaks in tongues? Well, if you think that being tarred and feathered on John MacArthur's Web site is great PR, then go for it. Or how fast and loose do you want to play with doctrine when it comes to fantasy or s/f? My wife just read a novel that asked, What if Jesus first came in the 22nd century AD? What would His first advent look like in an age of interplanetary space travel? Although that's a great premise, you know someone out there would object. As much as I want to embody the mythopoeia that Lewis and Tolkein championed, I don't want my publisher to deal with irate letters and bad reviews on Christian Web sites because I asked "What if?" of a treasured doctrine and people felt that my treatment of it was "off." (In my novel, I do explore a major doctrine by envisioning a more drastic expression of it than what the Bible states, adding s/f elements and conjecture.)

Even Lewis is not sacrosanct. I know he'll come under new scrutiny if Disney makes references to alcoholic drinks in their upcoming Narnia films. Any readers of that series will recall that Lewis was a virtual spokesperson for breweries and vintners. So how many teetotalers have objected to Lewis's world? Quite a lot, if a quick Googling of this issue is any indication. Well, I guess I would at least be in good heretical company.

Recently, I read a post on the Brandywine Books blog from a published author who no longer seeks publication. I was told to write the very best book I had in me. That's the best kind of advice, but sadly, I don't know if that advice belongs to another, less picky age. With publishers dwindling every hour, and market realities forcing every title to be a bestseller, the pressure to appeal to most of the people most of the time is enormous. Where that leaves Christian novelists is anyone's guess. Lowest common denominator is what I fear. The Christian fiction I've read lately surely bears that out.

Truth be told, I've been utterly incapable of making it through any of the Christian fiction I've bravely attempted in the last three years. A few folks contend that the quality is rising, but I can't see it. From my perspective, should some Christian publisher decide to purchase my novel, I can view this as my joining the larger pool of books I cannot bring myself to read to the end OR I can see it as my attempt to bring something better to the pool. I guess only a publisher can determine that direction. Considering what I've said so far in this post, my chances of getting that letter that sets every hopeful author's heart a-flutter have probably already dropped at least fifty percent.

Here's another truth: this post has been sitting in draft form on Blogger since April. Only this and the previous two paragraphs are new. Why you ask? For the very reason I just stated. Biting the hand that potentially feeds at a time when publishing houses have consolidated down to the number of toes on my left foot is not all that bright. But given that some are trumpeting the new wave of Christian fiction…well, I had to add my two cents.

I'm a writer; it's what I do.