Friday, July 27, 2012

Shoehorning God by Scott Roche: Religion and Fiction Series, part 1

When I tell people who know I'm a Christian that I'm writing a novel, I invariably get asked, "Is it a book for the Christian shelves?" In some ways, the question makes sense, but to at least a degree, it also makes no sense because the books we write should go where they fit. In fact, I believe they have an important place where they fit best, whether it's the religion section, the sci-fi section, the romance section, or somewhere else on the bookshelves. I've asked some writer friends to share their thoughts on how religion and fiction should mesh (or shouldn't), how beliefs can end up in our fiction (or not), how we can mine our past spiritual experiences for our fiction (if we want to), and whatever else comes to mind when asked what they feel the connection between religion and fiction may be.

Today's guest post is by Scott Roche, whose book Ginnie Dare is a great example of young adult writing that embraces healthy values and is also a lot of science fiction fun. I reviewed it here a while ago, and I highly recommend it. Now, on to what Scott has to share in his post "Shoehorning God."
***


My spiritual life has been a bit of a roller coaster. I was raised culturally Christian. By that I mean we attended church on the major holidays and had one of those honkin’ big family Bibles. However, I was a voracious consumer of a whole host of age inappropriate fiction, movies, and music. I was completely, one might even say blissfully, unaware of “Christian” versions of those things.

Fast forward to college. I met and fell in love with a young lady who’s now my wife. She was and is a much more conservative believer than I am. She introduced me to that which I was missing. I began listening to music and reading books targeted at believers. Some of it was good. Most of it was drivel. I think I know why.

Reason number one is the same reason why most entertainment is chalked up to Sturgeon’s Law: “Ninety percent of everything is crap.” Since there’s not a great deal of product targeted at us, though more than there used to be, the number might seem higher. And it might be. There’s another one though; many Christian creators want to shoehorn God into everything. I also call this the Christian Whitewash.

Infusing your belief, whatever that may be, into what you write should be the most natural thing of all. After all, the Bible says, “Out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks”. If you’re a Christian, then that’s going to inform everything you do. The same is true whatever religion you might subscribe to.

I think that the key is not to force it.

Here are a few things you don’t have to (and perhaps shouldn’t) do:
 
1) Preach to the Choir: Assuming that your audience is religious/spiritual in the same way you are, you don’t have to make what you write the equivalent of Sunday School. I listened to a podcast novel recently where it seemed that the author felt the need to take us down “Romans Road,” the steps that some Christians teach as the process to salvation (based on Bible verses found in the New Testament book of Romans). It got tired quickly and bogged down an otherwise interesting story. Instead, challenge us. Use your fiction to tackle the bigger issues and unpack them. Say what you will about The Shack, but it got people talking about the nature of the Trinity. I have my own feelings on the writing, but that’s another rant.

2) Allegorize: Doing allegory right/effectively takes a deft hand. One of my favorite series of all times is The Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis did allegory well, but even he got a bit heavy-handed. I will now bring The Shack up as an example of what NOT to do. If you want a Christ figure in your book, try not to be so on the nose.

3) Demonize the Other: The obvious villain in many Christian stories that I’ve read is The Evil Atheist/Satanist. There’s nothing wrong with that per se. I’ve done that myself. The pitfall here is in making all of the non-believers in your story out to be antagonists. In my novel Archangel, I’ve actually got a protagonist who’s an atheist and he remains such throughout the book. That leads me to the next point:

4) Everyone Gets Saved: When it comes to non-Christian characters, there seems to be a Christian writer’s equivalent to Chekov’s Gun (Don’t include a loaded rifle in the first act unless you intend to shoot someone by the third act). And that rule seems to be: Don’t introduce an atheist in the first act unless he’s on his knees in prayer by the third act. Remember, people are complex and not everyone becomes a Christian. In one of my series, the foil for my main character, a Roman Catholic priest, is an atheist school teacher. I kind of hope that he never becomes a Christian so that I can always have that alternate point of view.

5) Saintly Protagonists: This is the opposite of number three. If you make your protagonist a mouthpiece for your beliefs (not a bad thing, but also not necessary), then make sure he’s a fully fledged person. We all have warts; show theirs. The flip side of this that I often see is the protagonist who starts out as deeply conflicted about their religion but who become a super saint by the end. Sure that happens, but will your audience be able to identify with them?

Personally, I think all of the above are just good writing tips in general, regardless of what you believe. Even if that isn’t true, all of this could be shelved if more Christian writers realized that you don’t have to make your story overtly “religious” at all. This goes back to the overflow of your heart. Hopefully my YA novel, Ginnie Dare, is a good example of this. There’s no mention of religion anywhere in the book. Still, it’s infused with the concepts of love, family, sacrifice, and other values that are deeply rooted in my faith.

Some people might consider that a bit of a “cop out.” I can hear some people saying that by leaving God/Christianity out of my story that I’m short changing it. I couldn’t disagree more. For Exhibit B, I need only reach back to The Lord of the Rings. It hits every one of these pieces of advice, and there’s little argument that Tolkien was a Christian and that it influenced his life and works. What you believe and who you are will come out in what you write.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Scott Roche. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Some creatures feed on blood and revel in the screams of their prey. Scott Roche craves only caffeine and the clacking of keys. He pays his bills doing the grunt work no one else wants to take, bringing dead electronics back to life and working arcane wonders with software. His true passion is hammering out words that become anything from tales that terrify to futuristic worlds of wonder. He’s also constantly seeking out talent for the publishing empire that is Flying Island Press. All that and turning three children into a private mercenary army make for a life filled with adventure. 

Find his blog/website at scottroche.com. And check out his books on Amazon.
***

Scott, thanks again for stopping by and contributing to this topic. I loved what you had to share!

Readers and Writers: I'd love to hear you weigh in on the topic of religion and fiction. Are there limits to what is acceptable? Do you like books with overt spiritual themes, or do they get too preachy for you? What about books that are anti-religion? How do your beliefs and values make it into your writing?

11 comments:

  1. I didn't include this, but this is a problem in non-religious fiction too. As a flipped example I can think of at least one instance where an anti religious stance hurt an otherwise fun book. The Golden Compass (aka Northern Lights) was a book I enjoyed but I won't be reading the sequels since I couldnt' get around Pullman's agenda.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I must be so shallow---I read all of the trilogy with great joy in what I thought the book was about: adventure. I guess I just thought some of the must-be-agenda things were like other people's conversations at a cocktail party.

      Delete
  2. Good point, Scott! I agree. Whatever we believe can get into our fiction and it can be off-putting if we're not aware of how it comes across to our readers. I feel that way about Terry Goodkind's work, which I think pushes objectivism a little too much. And I definitely feel that way about Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard, which essentially reads like a fictional allegory for Scientology.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great piece, and an excellent point. It seems to me that all too often the Saintly Protagonist is really just a Mary Sue with an agenda.

    All fiction is infused with the perspective of the person who writes it, and I couldn't agree more that trying to force an extra layer of opinion into a tale is like ruining a cake by adding too much frosting.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You know, now that I think about it, a lot of writers put agendas into their fiction. Richard Wright's "Native Son" is one example. It's not just spiritual beliefs that get into our works. If it's forced, it breaks the realism of the story, doesn't it? Thanks for stopping by and reading!

      Delete
  4. Now honestly, can cake ever have too much frosting?

    Good fiction does need to be restrained in the promotion of its agenda IF the primary purpose of the fiction is to entertain. I think the problem with much of Christian fiction is that it has been seen as a venue for proselytizing, not as written entertainment. This is as true for secular "agenda" fiction as it is for religious.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Too much frosting? Well, if you're on a diet... LOL! But seriously... I'm with you on the proselytizing issue. We shouldn't write long tracts and call it fiction. Thanks for sharing.

      Delete
  5. I probably should add that I admit to a bias here: I think all fiction should entertain because that's what the medium is designed to do. It can deliver truth too, of course, but it's not meant to be a sermon or a class. It's meant to be a story. I'll talk about my opinions on this some more when we get to the end of this blog series. FYI, guests M.E. Anders and Bryan Thomas Schmidt will also be stopping by with their takes on religion and fiction in the next few weeks. There are so many angles to examine on this topic. We won't hit them all. But it's fun to explore and see how people approach the topic, isn't it?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Fiction as primarily entertainment is a relatively modern invention, say within the past 200 years or so. Before this, fiction was used primarily in instruction, for the purpose of imparting values, knowledge, and critical thinking skills. It was also a "safe" form of political commentary and a means of proselytizing. For many people, all of the above still hold true, and a "well-written" novel is one that encourages its readership to think about a subject first, and provides casual entertainment second.

      Delete
    2. Fair enough. And it's true that a good novel often makes you think about something. I like that in a novel, as long as it actually challenges me to consider the issue and wrestle with the answer myself, rather than trying to force an answer upon me. You know what I mean?

      Delete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.