CSFF Blog Tour: When Satan Attacks

Have I said how much I like Greg Mitchell’s commentary on The Strange Man? I ought to, because I am about to quote it again. Here he writes about the end of chapter 4:

So, this is probably THE most controversial and debated scene in the book among readers and even my editors. Lindsey cries out for Jesus to save her from the bogeyman. All fine and good, except…she dies. This has raised some questions: “If she genuinely called on the name of the Lord, why did He not rescue her? Why did she die? Did God abandon her?” One review even went so far as to say I was condemning her for what I, the author, viewed as a sinful lifestyle. In a Christian book where demons are involved, it’s awfully easy to just have the hero “rebuke the devil in the name of Jesus” and then, wham, instant relief from danger. But I don’t think it works quite like that in real life and it definitely doesn’t work like that in The Coming Evil Trilogy. People die. Sometimes good people, who call on the name of the Lord. I think of the story of Job. The Lord forbade the devil from killing Job, but said no such thing about all of Job’s kids. They all died in one horrible afternoon. Now, most Christians want to cast themselves in the role of Job–believing that the devil can never harm them. But maybe, sometimes, we’re Job’s kids. But, even in the death of Job’s children, God was given the glory and it eventually strengthened Job’s faith. That’s a victory of a kind. I love Lindsey and certainly was not stepping in as Author and condemning her or passing judgment on her. In fact, I think there was a line that was eventually cut that said the spilling of her “innocent” blood is what affects the lake at the end of the book. Nor was I suggesting that God abandoned Lindsey or that He didn’t forgive her or save her soul.

There is a lot of truth in this. Any serious study of the Bible, any knowledge of the persecution the Church has suffered and is suffering now around the world all will show that to be a Christian is not to be safe. Sometimes good people meet evil and it kills them.

And yet … Greg Mitchell brought up Job. There are many intriguing things about his story, and one of them is this: Satan never directly attacked Job. All his assaults were made through the physical world: forces of nature (which is scary), and human beings (which is scarier yet). Job’s children were killed when the oldest brother’s house, struck by a strong wind, collapsed on them. Satan didn’t show up in physical form and take care of business – which is pretty much what the Strange Man did with Lindsey.

In the Bible, direct confrontations between demons and human beings are hard to come by. Not that it is impossible. The Seventy-two, for example, had their encounters:

17 The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.”

18 He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. 20 However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

From first to last this is a fascinating statement. I always found it interesting that Jesus did not allow His disciples to rejoice in their authority over demons. But what is pertinent to our discussion is that the spirits did submit. They continued to.

One thing to note about these confrontations is that Christians prevailed, through the authority the Lord gave them. Another thing to note is that even there, the confrontations took place through the possessed human being. It still isn’t quite like The Strange Man, where demons interact with humans as physical beings in the physical world.

So to what degree are demons are capable of that, to what degree does God permit them, and to what degree do they choose to? And the answer is, simply, we don’t know. Greg Mitchell takes us into territory that is, scripturally speaking, uncharted.

And that’s why it doesn’t bother me. I understand the theological points raised by other reviewers, but Mitchell’s bogeyman is sometimes mythology rather than theology. The bogeyman coming to town in a storm and the gremlins flying down Main Street aren’t real-world; they’re just analogies to it.

CSFF Blog Tour: The Art of the Point and the Point of the Art

The Strange Man opened with an old man telling the sad, strange tale of Joe Hallerin. At the end of the telling, he stood and roared the moral of his story: “And if the Strange Man ever come knockin’ at your door, don’t you ever, ever let him in!”

A few chapters later, a mother soothes her daughter’s fears of the bogeyman by giving her a candle  and the assurance, “Everybody knows that light keeps the bogeyman away.”

There are two powerful Christian points to be found in those statements, and I expected the novel’s moral to turn on them. I was more surprised when I found that the novel’s action turned on them.

The subtle imagery, the double meaning of the little girl’s candle and the old man’s story did not set the pattern for the book. The Strange Man is the most forwardly Christian novel I’ve read in a long while. There are two heavy-duty “witnessing” scenes. Greg Mitchell has some interesting comments on these. To quote him here:

Part of the thing I wanted to do back then with The Strange Man was show that “Hey. We can tell the gospel, but have all the other stuff too.” I wanted the message in there, sure, but also good characters and plots, excitement, etc, and to also turn the “gospel scene” on its ear–where it’s not a neat and tidy conclusion. It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered how vehemently some Christian writers are against this kind of scene period. They would say that this is a trademark of bad writing and that this is the reason “Christian Fiction” is not taken seriously by the literary world.

Conversion and witnessing scenes are often awkward – awkward to read and awkward to write. It can be – often has been – done very badly. But I don’t see how it can be rejected altogether. Accepting Jesus Christ is the most important, the most pivotal thing any human being can do. It is, the Bible says, crossing over from death to life. It’s reconciliation with God. And all that being so, how can we say it should never make its way into fiction?

I’m speaking, of course, on the basis of a shared belief. The “literary world” at large is not going to view a Christian conversion as a matter of eternal life and death. They may have a hard time taking books that do seriously.

I’m not saying we should dismiss their criticism out of hand. Some of it is valid. We can learn by listening. But why would we let secularists tell us how much Christianity is acceptable in a novel? It would be like a political party letting the opposition edit their campaign ads.

The failure in Christian media is not doing “altar scenes”, but doing them badly. You can make a point with art, but you have to do it artistically. That’s the thing. Whatever message a novel contains must come naturally from its story and characters. Quoting Greg Mitchell again:

I scrapped my old way of looking at things. This scene wasn’t about saying the right things for the Reader. This is Dras and Rosalyn’s lives on the line here. I focused on my characters–on Dras. After everything he’d been through in this story, what did he need to say to Rosalyn? I wrote this scene from the heart–Dras’ heart–to Rosalyn.

And I think that focus is just about perfect.

CSFF Blog Tour: The Strange Man

(Note: In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.)

Dras has problems. He has no job, no money, no prospects, and no ambition. Plus, he just got gypped on a Snake Eyes GI Joe action figure.

But the Strange Man is coming to town, and soon Dras will really have problems. When the bogeyman sets his sights on you and your best friend, it’s time to run. Or start praying.

It’s a touch choice, especially for someone who asks the video store clerk for advice on whether to rent She-Vampires from Mars or Garden Tool Massacre. (The clerk was no help at all. I would have advised, constructively, “Bambi.” But nobody asks me these things.) Dras is a screw-up little brother, and it’s a tall order to suddenly become a man of God when you’ve never even been a man.

The hero’s journey in this novel is to grow up, but it’s not really a coming-of-age story. It’s more like a shaping-up story. I have to say I admire Dras as a character, and even more as a hero. Bogeymen are easy to find, and goblins are a dime a dozen. A twenty-two-year-old protagonist with the obsessions – and mode of transportation – of a twelve-year-old is more unique.

Dras brings much of the book’s freshness. He also brings much of its humor. Humor is one of The Strange Man‘s best points.

And believe me, The Strange Man needs all the lightening up it can get. There was too much violence for my liking, and occasionally the creepiness went too far. I’m all for the hero pedaling for his life from a horde of gremlins, but I draw the line at mind-controlling little girls, and Eldon Granger’s fate was unnecessary. The author would do well to ratchet back such factors.

He would also do well to more strictly maintain the viewpoint of his scenes. The style of the book is limited third-person, but there are times when it lapses. It’s not as limited as it ought to be. There are scenes that would be smoother, and ultimately more effective, if they were kept entirely to one character’s perspective.

All this notwithstanding, The Strange Man is a good book. Its religious element is strong and more profound than I first guessed. The pace is brisk. The ending was unexpected, and it had meaning and depth of emotion. Between that, and Dras, and the humor – this is the highlight reel – I enjoyed The Strange Man.

You can buy the novel on Amazon. I highly recommend checking out the author’s website; it has short stories featuring the characters of the Coming Evil Trilogy, and a fascinating author’s commentary on The Strange Man. The rest of the blog tour can be found here:

Noah Arsenault
Red Bissell
Kathy Brasby
Grace Bridges
Beckie Burnham
CSFF Blog Tour
Amber French
Tori Greene
Katie Hart
Bruce Hennigan
Timothy Hicks
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Inae Kyo
Emily LaVigne
Matt Mikalatos
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Gavin Patchett
Andrea Schultz
Kathleen Smith
Donna Swanson
Jessica Thomas

Steve Trower
Fred Warren
Dona Watson
Phyllis Wheeler

Review: A Matter of Basic Principles

I wondered whether posting a review of this book would be a good idea. As much as I appreciated it, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to burden my blog with so heavy and disagreeable a topic as Bill Gothard.

A Matter of Basic Principles is worth it, however. When I began to research Gothard’s teachings, I wanted a calm, biblical critique. This book outdid my expectations. It is scrupulously documented, referencing books, articles, and interviewees (usually by name).

The authors test Gothard’s views with the Bible. They are clearly knowledgeable of the Scriptures and how to interpret them. They are also well-versed in Christian theology and its points of dispute. They compare, for example, Gothard’s view on grace to that of the Roman Catholic Church, citing the Council of Trent.

They also contrast Gothard’s teaching on the Mosiac Law with traditional Protestant views (Reformed, Lutherans and Dispensationalists, and Theonomists). Gothard goes beyond all these groups in applying the Mosiac Code to Christians. He regulates when husbands and wives can have relations based on OT ceremonial laws. Gothard preaches circumcision, too, in defiance of the Bible’s teaching that circumcision has no spiritual value (Gal. 5:5). His legalism also shows itself in numerous smaller ways – such as his strange animosity for Cabbage Patch dolls, store-bought white bread, beards …

The things I was most surprised to learn are these:

  1. The pervasive weirdness of Bill Gothard’s teachings. The man believes that the presence of Cabbage Patch and troll dolls can make women unable to give birth. He also asserts that uncircumcised men are more promiscuous than circumcised men, connects a person’s health to the meaning of his name, teaches that the Flood was caused by dating, holds up Samson as someone “most qualified” to choose a wife …
  2. Bill Gothard’s unprincipled behavior. The book recounts several stories – including the authors’ own experience – about Gothard’s dealings with others. I was startled at what they showed him doing – lying, slandering, making false promises, violating his own teaching, and treating others with a lack of kindness that was, at times, truly remarkable. At one point he attempted to extort property from one of his followers. This is the man with the “Institute for Basic Life Principles”.
  3. Bill Gothard’s distortion of grace. I can’t do justice here to the authors’ excellent exposition. I will, however, quote one of their conclusions: “For Gothard, the primary purpose of grace is to assist Christians in keeping the Law.”

I realize this last borders on a charge of heresy. You could get a copy of the book to see it proven, but it would be easier just to go to Bill Gothard’s website and read his page on grace. His essential definition of grace is easy to find – it’s the sentence in a font two or three times bigger than anything else on the page: “Grace is the desire and the power that God gives us to do His will.”

Roll that over in your mind, Christian. It doesn’t come within a thousand miles of being right. Grace is not about God enabling us to do His will, but about God saving us when we didn’t do His will. Grace is about God’s love – “Not because of who I am, but because of what You’ve done; Not because of what I’ve done, but because of who You are.”

Equally disturbing is this comment from Gothard’s website:

Circumcision is not required of believers for salvation. … Neither is circumcision required for achieving the righteousness of the Law or the sanctification of the believer.

It’s amazing that Gothard would list “achieving the righteousness of the Law” along with salvation and sanctification. The righteousness of the Law has nothing to do with either. As Paul writes in the first chapter of Romans, “For in the Gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’ “

We can no more achieve the righteousness of the Law than we can walk to the sun and roast marshmallows in its atmosphere. That is why we need Jesus. Just as He took our sins at the Cross, so He gives us His righteousness. That is grace, and it’s a beautiful thing.

It’s a thing that Bill Gothard apparently doesn’t understand.

In A Matter of Basic Principles, the authors give a severe verdict on Gothard’s teachings, and they get in a few sharp barbs along the way. But the tone of the book is calm and measured. The authors do not take cheap shots, and unlike Joseph’s brothers, they can say something good. Their even-handedness gives credibility to their final judgment. Anyone wishing to understand Bill Gothard’s teachings and their popularity would do well to start with A Matter of Basic Principles.

Firebird – Annotated, This Time

Marcher Lord Press is putting out a new edition of the Firebird Trilogy, all three books in one volume. This edition has new maps and annotations by the author. It also has new cover art. More on that later.

I know how popular it is to include maps in speculative novels, especially of the fantasy kind. Personally, I have never found a novel’s maps more interesting than its acknowledgments. The new maps for Firebird are no draw for me.

The annotations, on the other hand, certainly draw my interest, and perhaps someday my money. I looked at the sample MLP gives, and the notes are fascinating.

And here’s the more I promised on the covert art: It’s a step down from the earlier covers. Much of it is good, but it is unfortunately dominated by the models. I find the model staring soulfully from the cover too generic. How many movies, how many books – from action thrillers to romance – could that be pasted onto? The grumpy model is even worse. (Question: Why do models ever pose sullen? Does someone imagine this is attractive? Intriguing?)