Monday, August 30, 2010
Friday, August 27, 2010
I also enjoyed the comments and recommendations people made. Many of the novels mentioned are ones I’ve read and enjoyed – and as always is the case on this blog, new-to-me novels made my TBR pile grow. Love this group of well-read folks! And my humble thanks to Latayne and Koala Bear for the shout out love.
One thing I’ve noticed, not just on our blog, but in general, is that we tend to equate redemption stories with personal redemption only. Of course this makes sense – Christianity understands redemption as a personal experience one that cannot be prescribed or legislated, rather it is experienced (or not) on a person-by-person basis. All well and good, but I’ve been thinking lately, wondering if we can take this notion of redemption further in our fiction.
I’m working on a new novel, A Girl Named Fish, a story about community, and it’s gotten me to thinking about how the concepts of redemption can be presented on a broader canvas than the individual. Let me give you a for instance: A story about a woman who overcomes a difficulty in her life (a terrible past, a loss, an addiction, etc), is in itself a satisfying story. But I’m increasingly sure there could and should be more, that the story of the individual coming to wholeness is only the beginning. If a woman is raised up on to her own two feet, it is for a purpose, right? Something bigger than herself calls to her to move on with her life, accomplish things, and embrace life fully. Doesn’t it make sense that God restores people in order to restore entire societies and cultures? That the people who experience grace and wholeness can in turn be agents of grace and wholeness in the larger society? Of course it does, we holler in unison!
Yet it seems to me there is a distinct lack of these “change the world” stories on our shelves. There are, however, shelves of novels that point to society’s decline. Where are the stories that point to society’s potential? The stories that teach us how to break cycles of hate or abuse. The stories that show us how a group of like-minded individuals can turn the world around them to spin in a different direction – a better direction.
It’s freedom Friday, today, and I’d love for you to share those novels you’ve read that point to the value of our potential. That point out routes to peace among enemies, that highlight our ability to allow love to overrule our prejudices, not only as individuals, but as entire communities, towns, societies, and cultures.
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Katy began a great discussion with her post about what redemption looks like in fiction. Please bear with me as I share a simple story of redemption on a different level.
Years ago when I was newly engaged, I went shopping with my future mother-in-law to a Green Stamp Redemption Center. She had books filled with reams of stamps that she had dampened and stuck carefully onto the pages. The stamps had been earned at the grocery store, the gas station and other businesses with the 'We give Green Stamps' sign in the window.
Being the saintly woman that she was (and I'm being sincere), she handed me a bundle and told me to pick out something for myself. There were many useful and practical items on display and I spent a long time choosing. Then I saw the bean pot! I could never explain why it appealed to me so strongly, except that it was painted in homey colors with a rooster on the front and it was autumn, after all. I took my choice to the counter to show her and was met with puzzlement. "A bean pot? Well it's...nice." The toasters and electric knives and baking dishes would have been more practical choices, and I realized that I'd passed up an opportunity to show my practicality as a wife for her son. But if Alice was anything, she was gracious.
My bean pot now sits high on a shelf in my kitchen among other retro kitchen-ware. And while shopping one day for '40s dish towels, tablecloths, canisters and pitchers, I came across the same bean pot with a surprising price tag. It turns out that my bean pot is a McCoy and worth more than just sentimental value. It was probably the best choice I could have made. Did I recognize the value in it? Yes, but not as others saw it.
I have a character swimming around in my brain, wading in the gray matter, who is just a bean pot. She is not very heroic, attractive or practical. She doesn't have her life together or truly understand God's love for her. She's made mistakes - some with lasting consequences. But she's likable, I think, in that she stumbles toward redemption trying to make it happen for herself without realizing the cost involved or the futility in her striving. I'm loving that I get to show her how much God wants to redeem her and her situation. Her life won't miraculously blossom - her slate won't be wiped clean - but she will find that her worth is much greater than she knew, greater than the way she lived her life. And she will marvel at the One who recognized her worth in spite of the condemnation she deserved.
From the great host of characters who find redemption in literature, which stands out to you most? We would love to hear!
Sunday, August 22, 2010
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.
Friday, August 20, 2010
You readers may all grow weary of me speaking of the years I spent as a book reviewer for CBA books. But that experience marked me, as a reader and a writer.
With my own column (and freelancing for other publications), I had carte blanche to order any book that struck my fancy to read and review.
Publishers were anxious to get reviews and I often received boxes almost too heavy to lift because they included others along with the ones I’d requested. I read every book I reviewed, cover to cover. I was conscientious and thorough.
Sometimes I reviewed reference books (the only ones I didn’t read completely), but not often. Since I myself published non-fiction, I was always interested when provocative, thoughtful books appeared.
They ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. Whenever a Philip Yancey book was released, I could not wait to get my hands on it because I knew it would be honest and would tackle difficult issues like his Disappointment With God. (Which has been one of the most influential books of my life.)
But major publishing companies put out tripe, too. One book, which was advertised as a study of how to distinguish intuition from inspiration, I eagerly awaited. Imagine my disappointment in the fact that its hundreds of pages listed only two scriptures and those in the context of chanting them as a mantra. (Excuse me? Major Christian publisher? What were you thinking? I asked them. I’ll do you a favor and not write a review!)
Fiction was even more discouraging. I became paralyzed with the inability to monthly find/choose/order a novel or two that didn’t have a folksy feel to it, a fuzziness and warmth, all those emotions that were not helpful to me as a conflicted, art-craving person in need of mucking-around collegiality instead of melatonin.
And then my editor said, “Have you never read Frederick Buechner?”
And with those words, I saw light at the end of the Christian fiction tunnel. Buechner isn’t afraid to write edgy fiction about the God he called “the Fear” (a Biblical name for God, by the way.)
See what inspired me. Hear what I heard, in this passage from Son of Laughter:
“Arise, the Fear had told me. Did he know in his high heavens the weariness of rising? Lord as they say he is of all the living, can he guess the bitterness of death and dying? The flaming, footsore men? The camels’ burden? ‘Go,’ he told me. Can he without shame bid a man go and then cripple him for going? Can he show him the face of light and then leave him in darkness without even a silver hand to hold on to?”
And that was the light, the Buechner-focused light, that I’ve been stumbling toward with every written word since.
Share with us an example of a description of God from an author whose language stirred you to a greater understanding of God.
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
It's been a very interesting year. The story seems bigger, more personal.
In my reading, however, I've thought more than once: Uh, God, have you seen the writing guidelines for Christians?
In short, God isn't always nice, nor does he use polite language. We make a mistake if we try to fit him into our 1950s sensibilities, probably the last decade being His follower felt comfortable. In my Bible reading yesterday, God speaks to Israel through Ezekiel like harlots with lusts for very large Assyrian...um...well...genitalia (Ezekial 23), only He spoke in more earthy language. In the next chapter, Ezekiel's wife dies. God tells him not to mourn to demonstrate His lack of pity on His adulterous children. That's not nice, either.
God is so surprising.
He is not "nice" as defined in western culture. In fact, "He's not a tame lion," as C.S. Lewis proclaims in his Chronicles of Narnia. His jaws ensnare us; his teeth rip flesh; we are devoured by His greatness.
His justice is harsh. His love is crushing, comforting, confounding. His truth immutable. When we expect Him to zig, He zags. He subdues His power and begs us to come closer. His will comes to us as a finger writing in stone and by a child's breathy whisper. He is a passionate lover. His desire is for us, and His love outpaced His judgment when He took the nails on Calvary.
Who can figure Him out?
And yet, books are written--fiction and nonfiction--pretending to knowing the secret formula for taming Him, like if we do x, he will y. Riiight.
All of this is to say (thanks for being patient) True edgy fiction isn't pushing the envelope on topics of sex and language, although I agree with Sharon's conclusions yesterday.
Edgy fiction lets God be God.
We need some good examples, don't we? What have you read lately that portrays God as God? Lisa Samson's The Passion of Mary-Margaret and Embrace Me come to mind. And you?
Monday, August 16, 2010
Friday, August 13, 2010
I believe that all fiction is spiritual because all fiction (even the cheesy paperbacks we hide under our beds) is the exploration of what it means to be human. The human experience is the spiritual experience. And fiction is the human experience under duress. It asks, what is your mettle? What does it matter if you and I were born and grew and cried and wandered and settled and died?
Life asks more of us then we are wont to part with sometimes. We go through seasons of sorrow, loss, ill health, depression, bad bosses, divorce, abuse, or self-hatred and long for them to end - or better to have never happened at all. We turn to fiction to assure us, in a way only fiction can, that we will rise again. That in the midst of the gut wrench, there is lasting meaning. We ask, what worth is suffering? And fiction replies, come close and I'll show you.
When I read impossibly great stories such as Let The Great World Spin, History of Love, Latayne's upcoming novel A Conspiracy of Breath, I'm pulled into the levels of loss, the degrees of suffering common to the human experience. And inside these stories I find I am stretching my hand in front of me, working hard with the story to reach the goal. What is the goal? I suspect there are many ways to say it, many forms it takes, but for me, the goal it to touch beauty.
I can survive the ripping away as long as you can help me see the beauty in the pain. And I'll need help seeing it. Fiction is our helper. It reaches into our untapped reserves and helps us practice living within the safe confines of imagination. It's a stage on which we can rehearse our truth by examining the truths presented to us in story. And the whole time it whispers, Look for what lasts. Don't look away when it hurts. Find meaning. Picture yourself as a rising Phoenix. Touch beauty.
In the end, we all want to trade our ashes for beauty.
What purposes have you found for fiction? Has it shored you? Been a lasting example of hope? A warning? Has it helped you touch beauty?
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
While doing some research on fiction currently in the Christian marketplace, I noticed that a word kept popping up in the story summaries. The word was 'devastating.' The situations in which the protagonist found him- or herself were generally 'devastating.' The decisions to be made (or the lack thereof) were potentially devastating. Why are so many of us hooked on devastating circumstances?
Now, 'devastating' is not a melodramatic, no good very bad word. It says what it means and promises action. I even searched my own books, and found it was used in their descriptions as well.
As readers, we want to identify with the characters and experience their feelings acutely. As writers, we try to create characters whom readers care about and then place them in dire straits to guarantee readers will become invested and keep reading. It sounds like a winning combination. Scarlet was devastated when Rhett left her, albeit for the brief second before she resolved to do something about it (Gone With the Wind). Elizabeth Bennett was devastated to find that her sister was living out of wedlock with Wickham and that they were all 'tainted' by association (Pride and Prejudice). Jewel was devastated when her mother died and left her in the care of a self-righteous grandmother (Bret Lott's Jewel).
Can the word be over-used? Yes, and it can appear melodramatic. Careful handling is required. Can we care deeply about characters without 'devastation'? I'm not convinced of it. We need to see them at that lowest point to feel they truly need us. Again, careful handling. They can be devastated in the summation as long as their situation is true and not over-simplified or contrived, and their handling of it has dignity. If not, we lose respect - and interest - in the characters and their stories.
Have you met characters for whom you ached? Have you met any who did not seem to need you so much? How did you feel about it, and did you hang in there or close the book? We'd love to hear from you.
Monday, August 9, 2010
Sunday, August 8, 2010
I just asked the online Truly Random Number Generator to pick me out a truly random number. And the winner is...
Nicole, would you please email us at novelmatters at gmail dot com, and let us know your address? I'll handle the rest.
I'm delighted for you, Nicole! This is the book I turn to again and again, when I need to be both grounded and encouraged.
One more thing: we ladies at Novel Matters have noticed that our readers have begun to fraternize in the comments sections of our posts.
We'd like to warn you: if this continues, connections may form in the junctures, participants may experience unaccustomed feelings of friendship and encouragement, new thoughts and ideas may proliferate, and in some cases, new novels may result.
Just wanted to warn you.
Friday, August 6, 2010
On Monday, Eric Wilson bravely allowed us to run a post he'd first published on his own blog. I say "bravely" because evidently (I'm scared to look) his post has drawn fire in other parts of the blogosphere. Why a post titled - in all caps - IS IT TIME FOR CHRISTIAN FICTION TO DIE? - should rile up the troops is beyond me, but Eric consented to give you, our readers at Novel Matters, a chance to take a few shots of your own. If you desired.
I don't mean for a moment that you would not be free to disagree with anything he or any of us had to say at any time. But your comments showed that you had read his words in the spirit in which they were offered, and I loved the thoughtful, hospitable discussion that followed.
Then on Wednesday, Latayne had the un-enviable task of following Eric's post, and she did a remarkable job of it with a title that was only less controversial among those who had never read Harrison Bergeron. She wanted to know: The writers who take breathtaking risks in hopes of writing words that will melt the stars - do these writers offend those who simply write good stories, who may, by setting their sights lower, succeed more readily?
Are we presumptuous? Hoity-toity? Maybe not. Reckless? Oh, let's hope we are.