The Saving Mystery

Last time I came by this way, I talked about Coco‘s demoralizing portrait of the afterlife and how it casts a pall over the movie. Today, I want to move that discussion to a more general question of how the afterlife ought to be portrayed in fiction. My concern is not the gate to heaven or the road to hell, the broad and the narrow way; I am thinking of the much slighter question of what glimpses should be given of the afterlife, including the secondhand glimpses that come through ghosts or other denizens of the spiritual world.

The first thing to say is that we don’t really know what the next world looks like (which complicates creating glimpses of it!). We know what truly matters – eternal good or eternal bad, reward or punishment, God or the devil. Yet these abstractions are not translated into the concrete, except in the visions of Revelation. To what extent the fire and harps and gold are symbols of final destiny, or actual components of it, is a point of theological debate. Even the literal interpretation would leave us mostly with images of the New Jerusalem, which is not quite synonymous with Heaven. By any interpretation, the next world is mostly unknown – and unimaginable.

And fiction rushes in where theologians would fear to tread. It is easier for storytellers, you know: No portrait of the afterlife can truly be the way it is, but such literal truth is not their game anyway. Writers take two different avenues to spinning out visions of the afterlife. The first is that of symbolism; the concrete pictures represent abstract truths. In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis painted Hell as a city of empty streets sprawling out for thousands of miles in order to express the idea that the willful self-isolation of sin is consummated in Hell. Twilight Zone‘s “Nothing in the Dark” personifies Death as a handsome young man to convey the idea that death is not a monster in the dark. In works like these, the presentation of the unknowable is true in the only way it can be – as a symbol.

Not all writers have such elevated aims. Those interested in a good story, and not transcendent spiritual truths, take the second avenue. Putting aside the quest to tell the truth about the next life, some writers take happy license to invent whatever is most expedient to plot twists, world-building, or thrills. Coco is an unusually elaborate example of this. Ghost stories provide a broad array of more simple instances. Consider the popular trope of ghosts who linger to finish some item of business, or say goodbye, or even to simply realize that they’re dead. The tellers of such stories don’t necessarily believe that dead people remain on earth seeking closure. In fact, I would wager that most of them don’t, and some don’t believe in the immortality of the soul at all. There is no actual attempt, in many stories of the afterlife, to express any truth of whatever lies on the other side of death.

Yet there is, implicit in most of these stories, a sense of journey and a sense of mystery. We don’t know where the ghosts are going when they are finally ready to leave, but they are going somewhere; we don’t know what happens when the twilight over the city of empty streets ends, or where Death is leading the old woman. Many stories affect to peer through the great veil of death, but few pretend to tear it down. We are ignorant even in our stories, and in that ignorance is mystery, and in that mystery is hope.

That is the mistake that Coco makes: It doesn’t have the saving sense of mystery, the sense of journey that could have redeemed the dreariness of the Land of the Dead. This, then, is the cardinal rule for writers who wish to tread into the next world: Leave the mystery. Never pretend to tell all.

A Simple Line

Now that Amazon has acquired film rights to Lord of the Rings, and Netflix has licensed all seven Chronicles of Narnia, it is time to stop and ask ourselves: How much do bad adaptations of our favorite books really bother us? I am not saying, mind you, that the adaptations will be bad. But the possibility is strong enough that we should be thinking about it.

I am not going to attempt to analyze the profound emotional investment humans pour into stories that don’t happen and people who do not exist. We all know how real fiction can be, and how stories can accompany us through life, following us through changes that leave old times and old friends behind. Depending upon the time and manner of their entrance into our lives, stories acquire associations with larger things – a carefree summer, a person we knew then, old haunts, even (a thousand Star Wars jokes don’t change the truth) a gone childhood. To touch the story is to touch hidden chords.

Narnia and Middle-earth possess an uncommon power and resonance. Their potency is all the greater because they come to so many people in childhood and remain, among all the fantasy movies and books that follow, a kind of first love. Christians often associate these books with their faith and see Jesus in – or, perhaps, through – Aslan. Both for what they are and for what they represent, Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia evoke a considerable degree of passion that does not wish to be disappointed.

The new adaptations further labor under the burden of previous adaptations. The animated versions of both works exist mainly as curiosities, arousing little antipathy or attachment. The live-action versions are weightier creations and well-known to the Tolkien and Lewis fandoms. Peter Jackson’s trilogy is iconic, binding its images to the books, and for countless people it was their initiation into Middle-earth. Many fans don’t only worry that the Amazon series won’t live up to Tolkien’s Middle-earth; they worry that it won’t live up to Jackson’s Middle-earth. There is even talk of bringing back the actors from Jackson’s Lord of the Rings.

Perhaps some people feel about Walden’s Narnia films the way others feels about Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Perhaps, but I doubt it. The Walden films were not bad, but they fell far short of their source material. They failed to capture the spirit of Narnia, always seeming to be made by people tone-deaf to the meaning of Lewis’ works – people who replaced Caspian’s thirst to see Aslan’s country with boilerplate daddy issues because they just didn’t understand. Netflix has, in many ways, an easier task than Amazon, and strange as it may seem, it helps them that they are trying to do something no one has done: bring Narnia’s magic to the silver screen.

For myself, I am glad that Amazon and Netflix are producing their adaptations. I take a simple line: If the adaptations are good, I will enjoy them, and if they are bad, I will ignore them, and in either event I will be an interested viewer. But other people will take other lines. What is yours?

CSFF Blog Tour: Unfashionable Furniture

When I saw that A Cast of Stones – showcased this week in the CSFF blog tour – was listed as adult fantasy, it made me happy. Maybe unduly happy.

I was glad for the adult label for the reason that the majority of the speculative books I’ve recently read are labeled YA or younger. I have enjoyed these novels; the YA label means that the principal characters will be under twenty, but not much more. These books – sold as they are to a younger crowd – are fit for adults, too.

C.S. Lewis once weighed forth – or possibly it was Tolkien; either way, an estimable person you ought to listen to weighed forth – that fairy tales ended up in the nursery for the same reason old furniture did: It had gone out of fashion. That was a long time ago. Today speculative fiction – in many ways our modern fairy tales – is often directed, as the old fairy tales were, to the very young.

And I wonder why. Why are so many speculative books, perfectly decent for adult reading, pitched to teens and children? Why are so many speculative books written to them, reducing the age of the heroes, reducing the page count?

Is it a matter of fashion? I don’t think so; I don’t know. The current fashions are not an area of high knowledge for me.

Is it because adults won’t read speculative books? In my observation, adults read even speculative fiction that stars twelve-year-olds. But maybe it’s the crowd I’m around.

Is it driven by the market understanding of publishers? At the Realm Makers conference early this month, Jeff Gerke said that, in the mainstream publishing houses, the speculative genre is not expanding – except in YA. Maybe writers feel that to get an audience they have to aim their stories beneath adults.

Whatever the explanation, I’m glad to read a Christian fantasy written for adults. I’m glad to read a Christian fantasy about adults. To learn more about this rare bird, follow the links –

To the author’s website;

To A Cast of Stones [Book One] on Amazon;

To The Hero’s Lost [Book Two] on Amazon;

To the blog tour (reviews up in some places today!):
Julie Bihn
Jennifer Bogart
Keanan Brand
Beckie Burnham
Jeff Chapman
Laure Covert
Pauline Creeden
Emma or Audrey Engel
April Erwin
Nikole Hahn
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen

Krystine Kercher

Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Writer Rani

Nathan Reimer
Chawna Schroeder
Jojo Sutis

Steve Trower
Phyllis Wheeler

Rachel Wyant

CSFF Blog Tour: Imagining Angels

One sometimes wonders – on these tours where we debate angel books and angel characters – what angels make of it all. Possibly they don’t make much. Heaven has more important business. Anyway, they have surely noticed by now that gaps in human knowledge are often filled by human imagination.

God has set limits so that, though angels are always seeing us, we can hardly ever see them. Our knowledge of angels is so slight that Christians have had a diversity of views on them. Even staying within biblical parameters, we can imagine angels many different ways. Here is a brief sampling of angelic portrayals from literature written by Christians – two from our modern era, two from the era just before.


We’re close now, so close than I can see that touching a Sabre’s wing may be the fastest way to lose an arm. I set to examining the nearest one. He’s gigantic, like Jake said. And his eyes are pure white, trademark white. Like Canaan’s. Like Helene’s. He has the celestial gaze of one who’d lay down his life for another. His skin, too, is white, so white it looks almost silver. His muscled arms and chest make Canaan look trim. But as much as I can find things to admire about his physique, it’s his wings that so separate him from any other angel I’ve seen.

Their beauty is staggering, their design inexplicable. Where I expect to see rows and rows of snowy white feathers, one blade lies on top of another – thousands of them – sharp and glistening silver. Shannon Dittemore, Broken Wings

Love, we have looked on many shows
As over lands from sea to sea
Man with his Guardian Angel goes
His shining shadow more than he.

– G. K. Chesterton, “Love, We Have Looked on Many Shows”

In a graceful, fiery spiral they drifted down behind one of the college dormitories and came to rest in the cover of some overhanging willows. The moment their feet touched down, the light from their clothes and bodies began to fade and the shimmering wings gently subsided. Save for their towering stature they appeared as two ordinary men, one trim and blond, the other built like a tank, both dressed in what looked like matching tan fatigues. Golden belts had become like dark leather, their scabbards were dull copper, and the glowing, bronze bindings on their feet had become simple leather sandals. Frank Peretti, This Present Darkness

But Thou, Lord, surely knewest thine own plan
When the angelic indifferencies with no bar
Universally loved, but Thou gav’st man
The tether and pang of the particular,

Which, like a chemic drop, infinitesimal,
Plashed into pure water, changing the whole,
Embodies and embitters and turns all
Spirit’s sweet water into astringent soul

That we, though small, might quiver with Fire’s same
Substantial form as Thou – not reflect merely
Like lunar angels back to Three cold flame.
Gods are we, Thou hast said; and we pay dearly.
C. S. Lewis, “Scazons”