Sunday, August 22, 2010

Redemption Anyone? A Novel Matters Roundtable Discussion

All of the great discussions we've had this past couple of weeks have touched on the kinds of fiction we like and don't like, what makes it distinctly Christian, what makes it edgy and what makes it merely offensive. In reading the comments, I became intrigued by several in which the word "redemptive" arose.

In a way it seems obvious, since our favorite story is all about how God re-deemed us to himself, that we would like to see echoes of that in our fiction. But I wonder, what exactly makes a story redemptive? Something Bonnie said strikes a note:
"Even in CBA where redemption is a spoon fed concept, I find most of the fiction misses the point (redemption seems to mean we get the boy we like, we get the money we inherited, we get the life we always wanted...). I think this is more because we are a society that has become used to analyzing what is wrong, broken, or dysfunctional in micro-detail. Therapy anyone? Parenting book anyone? And we get used to accepting bytes of rehashed advice."
There's a scripture that seems to want to find a home in this line of thought: it's what God said when Paul asked him to remove the thorn in his flesh: "My grace is sufficient for you. My strength is made perfect in weakness."

Weakness is strength. There's re-naming for you, and re-naming is what "re-deeming" means. It's just not the kind of redemption our self-help books have led us to expect.

The question we'd like to explore today with each other and with you is this: What does redemption look like if it doesn't always mean the girl gets the boy, the boy gets the money, and every thing turns out the way we want it to?

I'm so glad you brought this up, Katy! I made plenty of readers mad when my main character didn't end up with the hunky pilot.

Remember, I'm not much of a theologian, but I do pay attention, especially to God's redemptive work in my life. I offer him my brokenness, neediness, and lame-brainedness and he reworks all that for his glory and for my good, even though I don't always see it that way or won't see it that way in this lifetime.

Here are a couple ways Gods work in me has shaped the way I write redemptively. Years ago, my soul ached to be connected to the perfect man God. And so, God brought along this smart, conversant, creative, kind, and tender man, only I told him to take a flying leap. He was the best friend I'd ever had, but I didn't see him as husband potential. Yes, I was a fool. God intervened! Long story. Great result! I never write conventional romance plot lines. The greatest romance of all--God dying for His bride!--is pretty unconventional, too, and a model that love should smash boundaries and prepare us for the unexpected.

And then, ten years ago intractable pain became my moment by moment companion. It took 15 months to diagnose the cause. (Pain makes time go by very, very slowly.) Surgery and several years of physical therapy and lots of exercises with a rubber band reclaimed my life. I will never be the same again.

Thank you, Jesus!

We don't have the time to list all the ways God took a horrible situation and redeemed it. But just this week, I was able to calm a friend's apprehension about a lumbar puncture. My experience is still bearing fruit. I hated it. Prayed and prayed for the thorn to be removed. Exhausted. With only Jesus to hope in, I set my eyes on the far shore and found he is faithful. The characters in my stories don't always know what God is doing. He allows them to feel the heat under their feet so they cling to what they do know--the Cross and Christ crucified and risen. Of course, they don't get there right away. Where would the story be?

If you're wondering how redemptive fiction should look, take a gander at your life and snoop on those around you. You'll be surprised by God's handiwork. It's beautiful.

To me, redemption is never about having all your problems resolved here and now. Not in real life; not in fiction. It's about a promise of better things to come. It's a hope to hold onto even when you don't get the boy, or the job, or the house, or the outcome you may be pursuing. We love instant gratification in our culture, but there's nothing instant about the process of redemption. Yes, the price for my sin and yours was paid for, by Jesus, in one excruciating experience, but I didn't "arrive" the moment I became a Christian.

I don't want to read or write fiction that leads someone to believe that God is our fairy godfather, that with one wave of his magic wand, poof, all is well. I emphasize often that, for me, the main purpose of fiction is to entertain, but not in a Pollyanna way. I don't want a saccharin experience. I want beauty in the writing -- and even the most stark writing can be beautiful. I want characters that stay with me long after I've finished their story -- like Turtle in the incredible Blue Hole Back Home (which I picked up at a bookstore because I loved the cover). I don't mind if their story leaves me in tears. As long as it touches me in the deep places, resonates with something inside me, that, to me, is redemptive fiction.

Redemptive fiction, for me, is a story that demonstrates or helps me see an untapped or overgrown personal resource that allows for personal growth. It points to the things that give meaning to life. A story that whispers in my ear, "Look at all the potential." Redemptive fiction talks to me more about the things God talks about, rather than talking to me about God. For example, it rolls the concepts of loving your neighbour around inside a story. Let the Great World Spin took me by the hand and showed me how it is that I am connected to everyone else. How it is that I am my brother's keeper by virtue of being alive. That the whore under the bridge is my sister. The part-time priest wearing himself doing good deeds is shouldering my burden. That the woman locked in her penthouse grieving her losses is my mother, or my aunt. And what happens to these people happens to me. This book trimmed the hedge of my overgrown knowledge and made love unavoidably real.

The Book Thief spoke to me that we are record keepers, charged with the responsibility of remembering the horror of human actions in order to help humanity reach it's potential to be peaceful, loving, tolerate. It told me that scars should never be hidden, but should be shown, shared, explained in such a way as to prevent another person from needing to bear them. This story helped me look at the ash heap of my past and sift for beauty. It demonstrated the patience I need when I sit down with someone who is in prolonged pain. It helped me remember that my self righteousness is filthy rags.

Both these books were, for me, deeply spiritual, redemptive works. Both spoke of God not with knowing, but fully acknowledged the mystery of a Creator, and One who Loves Us yet must continue to suffer with us.

Maybe it's because I've had a rotten week where I lost my temper with a loved one and was snappy with another, a week where I struggled with many sins. I can only think of the Biblical meaning of redemption --the purchase back of something that was irretrievably lost and could only be gotten back by an expensive ransom. Out of such a week I'm more intolerant than usual with fluffy books where things are made pretty by the resolution of a situation. Girl gets boy? School/work/relationship made better? Ack. That's not redemption. That's fixing things.
Hey, I am the one that needs to be redeemed! I'm the one lost. I need to be fixed. The messiest situations in my life exist inside my head!
And I don't deserve the price my Redemption-Maker paid. If somebody writes a book that deals with that and calls it redemption, I'm all on board.

I don't enjoy stories where everything is tied up predictably at the end, but I don't like unsatisfying endings, either. There has to be hope that even though things aren't resolved as we would like now, at least we're headed in the right direction. Redemption is even more profound when it is complicated by our striving to make it happen, as messy as that can be, and failing miserably at it. I have to see some glimpse of the possibilities. I'm okay with having one tiny, messily-tied bow at the end.


Wendy Paine Miller said...

What does redemption look like? Growth. A hardened heart slowly becoming malleable, aware of what makes it pump. Awareness of the author of life. Movement from a stuck place to a place of fluidity and hope.

I’m with you folks, a book doesn’t need to have a tidy bow ending for me to enjoy it. But I like books to resemble maypoles with flags of all colors streaming from them. I want laughter and rejoicing; even if it comes by way of one child taking a step toward the pole to hesitantly clasp one of the strings.

Ultimately movement. And ideally movement toward the Creator and all those good things He bestows upon us. At times good things are invisible, but they carry promise on their wings.

~ Wendy

Tim George said...

Excellent points all. And amen to the Lumbar Puncture! You can tell have had that done before.

I think we do mistake "happily ever after" with redemption. That is one of the reasons Christian seem so afraid to any ambiguity in our fiction. But that is no how redemption works. It isn't that everything works out great for the redeemed. In fact a mark of redemption is how we deal with the mysteries of life. It is about clinging to faith and the Giver of faith in spite of the "not-yet's" of life.

Anonymous said...

" spite of the not yets..." Great comment, Tim.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

God had me composing this all weekend and I, in my futility wondered how it would fit in to the posts here.

I have just returned from holding my brother's hand and stroking his brow as he died. He was not conscious and only at the very end did we have an uncanny indication that his spirit knew we were with him.
I am humbled to the dust. I watched my mother hold her first-born's hand and give him permission to leave her more permanently than his 14 year estrangement. I watched my patriarchal father close the eyes of his eldest son who leaves no progeny.
There is no response beyond humility and so I concluded that fiction succeeds and God is sufficiently 'edgy' when it leads the author first, through the character and lastingly the reader to say, "I am little and helpless and even so God thinks I'm the bee's knees."

Nicole said...

Redemption looks like a pure stream just out of reach of the mud that's sucking me down. Until the epiphany of transformation that awaits my cry for help.

Redemptive leads down a rutted road to hope. Hope holds its hardships but focuses on future perfection and reminds this is not the end.

Patti Hill said...

Henrietta! Oh my, you've been to the veil of eternity with your family. My deepest sympathies.

"I am little and helpless and even so God thinks I am the bee's knees."

That's redemption. Love to you and your family, dearest.

Katie Ganshert said...

Maybe I'm alone, but I never thought of happily-ever-afters and redemption as the same thing. Redemption is Jesus' blood covering my filth - that's so much deeper, so much more complex, than a happily-ever-after.

I think a story can be redemptive AND happily-ever-after. I think a story can be redemptive and not happily-ever-after. Depending on how they are told, I can like and dislike both.

Kathleen Popa said...

Henrietta, what a time you've had. I am so sorry. I wish I could give more than a cyber-hug, but here it is, all the same.

There's a painter, Makoto Fujimura, who crushes the minerals that go into his paints, for the sake of the refractive (more than reflective) quality they possess when crushed. For him, and for me, that is like redemption.

I pray that sooner rather than later you be given a glimpse of the light refracted from your sorrow.

Jan Cline said...

I never thought of redeeming as getting a happy ending. I always felt it meant being placed in a position through mercy to receive the grace to accomplish God's plan for my life. It's like being given free entry into the race - but I still have to run and finish it.
Great discussion.

Rosslyn Elliott said...

Great discussion! Latayne, I like your comment, and my thought is a variant along the same lines.

When we "redeem" a token for money, or a ticket for a prize, we are exchanging the substitute for the real. To me, that's the meaning of redemptive fiction. The protagonist and others exchange the representation, the poor imitation, for the real thing, which is always beautiful on a deeper level even if on the surface it is a little shabby and falling apart in places. ;-)

Henrietta Frankensee said...

"I pray that sooner rather than later you be given a glimpse of the light refracted from your sorrow."
Dear Kathleen, If I could write all the Light we have seen......!
Thank you everyone for your encouragement and sympathy. We do not sorrow as those without hope and we honestly experience the unreasonable peace that won't let us go.
Kathleen's prayer reminded me of the second miracle in my journey. First, we encountered no red lights on our way to the airport, 34km across a big city. Second, as my profoundly worried husband drove home God refracted light through a thunderstorm for a complete rainbow over the direction of my flight. Reassurance.
Who would believe this if they read it in fiction? The list of God's interventions in this situation is too long to relate here; the Light is beautiful all around us.
The lens sheds a rainbow, covered in the fingerprints of a powerful God.
Thank you again.