Promises, Promises

Let’s talk about promises. To narrow the field, let’s talk about the promises the producers of culture make to us regarding their shows and movies and books.

Now, I don’t mean advertising slogans (BEST OF THE YEAR), which are not promises so much as exercises in hope and hype. I mean the implicit promises of genre, or brand, or whatever label under which a work takes up residence. These promises are made (of course!) in the interest of profit; if they get us to believe, they get us to buy. But once we believe and buy, they end up bound to their brands. The power of brand is a conservative force and resists change – including from readers and writers wanting something new in Christian publishing. (Incidentally, that is a preview. We will end at Christian publishing, but we’re taking the long way around, like they did before the Federal Highway-Aid Act.)

A brand is identity in shorthand and infinitely useful in this capitalistic world of choices. When you are so unfortunate as to be driving cross-country, do you stop to eat at small, unknown restaurants in small, unknown towns, thus exploring the rich variety of our great country and supporting hard-working small-business owners?

Of course not. You might get disappointed. You might get lost. You might get salmonella. What you do is, you watch the FOOD signs and get off the interstate when you see the logo of a chain restaurant that strikes you as good or, at any rate, acceptable. I’ve seen critical social commentary of this, but it’s only good sense. The selection off the highway sign of corporate logos is a selection based on knowledge, and if you’re not thrilled about getting a mediocre hamburger from McDonald’s, you won’t really be disappointed, either. Because you knew what to expect.

To teach people what to expect is the triumph of brand, and quite profitable when the expectations are good. What follows such triumph is an effort to preserve the brand and fulfill expectations. Disney, for example, has released most of its PG-13 fare and all of its R-rated fare under its Touchstone label. The more auspicious Disney label is reserved for gentler, kinder movies, movies fit for children. This is not a moral decision or an expression of values. Disney knows that its brand is a promise of movies that, while rarely without a dose of pathos, will never be too edgy or dark. Violate that too often or too egregiously, and see how many parents will be buying theater tickets on no other grounds than “it’s Disney”.

The same principle is manifest in publishing. Del Rey isn’t going to be releasing cozy mysteries with titles like Lemon Meringue Madness, and if you’re waiting for Harlequin to publish a six-hundred page literary novel with allusions in the original French and a textured analysis of symbolic-interactionist theory, I hope you’re a patient soul. That’s not what they’re about, and their readers know it.

And what is Christian publishing about? What promises does it make? To many readers, one of its most crucial promises is that it will be clean – that they can get the story they want without the unsavory content they don’t. All such readers could doubtless find books in the secular market they would enjoy, but the finding is so much easier in the Christian market. They expect that Christian publishers will adhere to certain standards, and depend on it.

Readers who want different standards, or even exceptions to the old ones, may be asking for more than they know. New standards and too many exceptions do something dangerous. They break the brand. They break the promise.

The Distinctive Pearl

I have occasionally had the thought that modern Christian fiction has not so much departed from mainstream publishing as stayed where everyone used to be. The idea was first prompted by the Clayton Standard, which promised clean stories and “intelligent censorship” to the people – more than two million a month – who read the romance, western, sci-fi, and detective stories published in Clayton Magazines. I don’t have the evidence to support the thesis, but periodically, I read something that resurrects it.

This happened, most recently, with Pearl, a poem dating to the fourteenth century and attributed to the author of Sir Gawain and the Green KnightPearl tells of a father who, grieving for his dead little girl, meets her on the shores of paradise and even sees heaven. The poem is filled with scriptural allusions and theological discussion and is only slightly less religious than the Bible. It sounds like a modern Christian novel, maybe even a bit The Shack meets 90 Minutes in Heaven.

In justice to the author of Pearl, his premise is moderated in a way that The Shack – and many other stories, Christian and secular – are not. For reasons J.R.R. Tolkien explained in the introduction he wrote to his translation of the poem, Pearl is almost certainly based on the author’s real-life loss of a very young daughter. Such losses were sadly common in his time, and the tragedy of Pearl feels grounded in life (unlike the faintly lurid melodrama of The Shack, which feels like someone was trying to think of just the worst thing). Still, the premise of Pearl holds a familiar ring.

Ultimately, Pearl is set apart by its execution rather than its premise. In two significant ways it stands apart from, and perhaps above, most fiction of our own day. First, its visions of heaven and of God are strictly bound by orthodoxy, by the teachings of Scripture and the doctrines of the church. Here is no imagining of God as a woman, or even of a chatty, casual Jesus; the grieving father’s brief sight of Christ is made up of imagery from the Apostle John: Christ dressed in white with a wound in His side, the elders bowing before Him, the angels offering up incense. In its vision of heaven, Pearl is even more indebted to the Apostle John, employing his descriptions of the New Jerusalem. (Most of the poem takes place beside a river that symbolizes death – in other words, at the border between this world and the next; the father never enters heaven and is only permitted a glimpse of Jerusalem across the river.)

Secondly, Pearl distinguishes itself – from both secular and Christian fiction – by the limited ground it gives to emotion. There is no treacle here, no sappiness. The emotion is very real – the image of the father dropping his precious pearl and losing it in the grass is a painfully beautiful allegory – but it does not consume the work. In part, this is because the father’s grief is mature; he has had time to think deeply as well as feel deeply, and the poem seeks to answer him with scriptural exposition. The calm, clear-eyed debate of these passages changes the air of the entire poem.

More importantly, Pearl never goes the way of tears and warm hugs and joyful reunions on the hither shores. Father and daughter remain separated by the river, never crossing to the other. His consolation lies in other, sterner things – in the conviction that God’s way is right and his own duty is patient submission. His father’s love must be satisfied by the knowledge that his daughter is a queen in heaven, redeemed and glorified; he must resign his pearl to God.

In its reverently orthodox imagery and restraint of emotion by reason, faith, and duty, Pearl distinguishes itself from the typical Christian novel. In its unabashed religiosity and theological exposition, however, it exhibits one of the most distinctive traits of traditional Christian fiction. Mainstream fiction has moved on from such things. But whether that is due to an evolving attitude toward art or an evolving attitude toward religion is a matter for debate.

Three Rules for Biblical Novels

It is natural – perhaps even inevitable – that the Bible inspire its own small genre of literature: biblical fiction, novels based on the people and events of the Bible. This idea has always appealed to me, but in reality, such novels have usually left me disappointed. I have read only two biblical novels that struck me as truly superior, and perhaps two others that came close. All the others I have read – and I read a fair number, before I conceded to the odds and gave up – ranged from poor to forgettably good.

As a genre, biblical fiction has its own peculiar challenges. And perhaps, as a reader, I make more demands of it than others would. Here, after reflection, are my three rules for biblical novels.

Fidelity to the Bible. The definition of fiction is that it is fictional; in accepting biblical novels, I accept their fictional element. I know the difference between a historical novel and a biography, between a movie based on a true story and a documentary about a true story. It doesn’t bother me that someone should write a historical novel of scriptural events, a story based on the true stories of the Bible.

But the fictional element should consist in elaborating on the true stories, not in changing them. Biblical novels should remain true to the Bible – not just in facts or events, but in its whole spiritual tenor.

Convincing and compelling elaborations. A biblical novel takes a story told in a few pages – sometimes only a few paragraphs – and tells it again in a few hundred pages. This requires significant elaboration. The elaboration must be true to the story, as I already said – keeping with the spirit as well as the letter. But it must also be compelling.

I have read biblical novels where characters stiffly act out their parts, without the sense of life and independent animation that, while always false, is the art and pleasure of the novel. Sometimes the elaboration falls flat, and of events as well as characters.

This is one of the peculiar difficulties of biblical fiction (though a similar one is found in, of all things, franchise novels). When writing a novel about the great men and women of the Bible, your portrayal must ring true with what we already know, and yet go beyond it. You must give life to characters you did not invent, rhyme and reason to events you did not choose.

When I read a rare excellent novel about King David (and what rich material his life provides), I thought to myself, “I don’t know if that’s the way David was. But it’s the way he might have been.”

So may all biblical novels impress us.

Fidelity to history. Biblical fiction must be regarded as a kind of historical novel, and therefore must be written with an eye on history. Canaan at the time of Gideon is a sketchier region of history than, for example, first-century Jerusalem, but do the research anyway.

I once read an author describe how she quit reading a novel about Joseph because of the appearance of steel knives. I wouldn’t go that far, and anyway it’s not relatively minor anachronisms that principally concern me. It’s the failure to make characters – inhabitants of places and of cultures so alien – children of their times.

One example: It is hard to find a novel about King David where a character does not outright state the superiority of monogamy. Now, David’s life does demonstrate the griefs of polygamy, and I yield to no one in condemning the selfishness and injustice of that form of marriage. But I always wonder at the casual condemnations of characters supposedly living in David’s world – would it really be so easy for them to see?

“It requires a fine effort of the imagination,” G. K. Chesterton once said, “to see an evil that surrounds us on every side.” And the evil of polygamy surrounded such people on every side. I don’t say it is impossible for one of them to see it as an evil, but I want to know how a flower like that grew out of such thin soil. At least I want the impression that it did grow out of thin soil.

These, then, are my three rules for biblical novels: fidelity to the Bible, fidelity to history, and compelling and convincing elaboration of both. I know it’s a tall order, but there are novels that deliver.

Such as the two I referenced earlier. These are The Miracle Maker, by Murray Watts, and The Stones, by Eleanor Gustafson. Just in case you were curious.

Prism Tours Grand Finale: The Cloak

A themed tour through Prism Book Tours.

We’re blitzing the Grand Finale for THE CELTIC TOUR for
The Cloak
By Sarah Jennings

Did you miss any of the tour? If so, go back and check it out now:

Launch

What do you hope readers take with them when they read your book?

Of course, I hope they want to hear more stories, but as for a takeaway it’s my desire that readers are able to connect with Kellan and close the book feeling encouraged.

My Love for Reading Keeps Growing – Excerpt

Later that evening, with everyone’s attention on the dying king, Kellan managed to sneak out of her room. Her objective was to find Osma and Master Hewitt and get out before anyone reported her missing. The place was just huge, and she didn’t know where to start.

I Am A Reader The Deer’s Cry

The McKensie family in The Cloak is depicted as being Spirit-filled. It’s a regular part of their lives, as it was for many in the early church and as it still is for many today. While that specific teaching can quickly become a hot button topic, it truly serves no good purpose to condemn anyone on either side of the fence. Instead, we can most likely all agree to this excerpt from “The Deer’s Cry”, also known as “St. Patrick’s Breastplate”:

Mythical Books – Céad Míle Fáilte: A Hundred Thousand Welcomes

Welcome to Errigal! What would a Celtic themed setting be without green hills and a castle? Featured on the cover of The Cloak is Lismore Castle, a beautiful structure in the town of Lismore in County Waterford, Ireland.

Classy Cat Books – Excerpt

Five months flew by in Paris. Kellan didn’t go home for Christmas or to celebrate the new year, choosing instead to immerse herself in the surrounding local festivities. Although she corresponded frequently with Osma and the teacher, writing only of her job and ignoring their attempts at engaging her in conversation about Errigal, she refused to return to the castle and made up all kinds of excuses to back it up.

Mary Terrani – Excerpt

Arriving at the castle, she stepped through the great wooden doors and immediately yanked the cloak off, exposing the blue jeans and black T-shirt she had changed into on the plane, a definite rebellious act to defy Errigal’s traditional dress and thereby match her frame of mind.

My Life Loves and Passion – Review

This was a great book. Kellan is a very amazing main character. . . . Kellan steps up and takes on a responsibility that she doesn’t want. It is a book that young women need to read. Kellan is such a good role model.

Katie’s Clean Book Collection – Excerpt

The fencing instructor was very amused and surprised the king was acting this way toward a lady. What is he thinking trying to enlist a woman into a sword fight? Look at her. She was wearing a blue, fitted bodice gown that reached all the way to the floor. Her dark hair was up in pearled pins, and ringlet curls fell down the nape of her neck. Attending a tea party would be more appropriate.

Zerina Blossom’s Books – Interview & Review

What was your favorite chapter (or part) to write and why?

The most fulfilling part for me is when Kellan comes home for the last time. I feel good knowing she is finally going to have the happiness she deserves.

“Overall, The Cloak is a sweet clean romance with some interesting twists and good character growth.”

Welcome to Book City – Irish Chocolate Mint Brownies

The next morning Osma tried again, bringing a tray filled with an incredible array of pastries and fruits, beings sure to include some of Kellan’s favorite food that she rarely received growing up, chocolate covered anything.

Christy’s Cozy Corners – Excerpt

Turning around, Ian went to reach out for Kellan’s hand, but she wasn’t there. A feeling of panic overcame him.Where is she? And where are those new bodyguards of hers? He turned back to the crowd to see their uplifted faces staring back at him. They had been hanging on every word, and the silence was immense.

Letters from Annie (Douglass) Lima – Visit Errigal with Sarah Jennings

Brief description of the world or location you created for this story:

In The Cloak, characters are essentially living in the past while also living in the present. Walk past Errigal’s borders and the modern world exists in every manner. Stay within, and a society steeped in Medieval traditions and methods still exists. The landscape is characteristic of Ireland with green, rolling hills, villages and marketplaces dotting the countryside, and hot, soothing mineral springs.

Once Upon a YA Book – Meet the Characters

Kellan – Princess and Daughter of the late Princess Seanna McKensie and late Duke Barend. Kellan is the true heiress to the throne of Errigal, if she can be convinced to take her place. Beautiful, wise, and very skilled with a broadsword, she exudes leadership when on listening terms with God. Kellan’s propensity to be headstrong, combined with hidden self-doubt, often lands her in troublesome situations.

Mel’s Shelves – Review

This is a quick read with a good message about prayer and the importance of relying on God. It also shows the difference one person can make when they’re willing to step into the role they were born to fill.

Books and Ashes – Review

If you’re looking for a different kind of fantasy, or want something fantasy-esque but not too heavy then this would be a good read for you!

Addicted Readers – Excerpt

Kellan stood facing the great stone fireplace. Its dancing flames matched the ones in her eyes. After what seemed like forever, her breathing finally began to slow down. The king had been about to say something to her once he heard the duke ride off, but Master Hewitt had stepped forward and held out his hand to stop him. She needed a moment more to settle down.

Paranormal Books – Interview

How did you come up with The Cloak?

Like many Americans, I have a great appreciation for my Irish ancestry and I love Celtic music. I think those things combined with my predisposition for a strong female lead who overcomes difficulties and weaknesses to do great things led to a story that just played out itself.

Mommabears Book Blog – Excerpt

The fallen warrior staggered up, bowed to the princess, and made his leave. She always felt rotten when they walked away, or in some cases, were carried away. At least now she was done for the day. Directing her eyes away from the departing man, Kellan looked ahead to see another suited contender. What is this? She turned and walked over to the teacher.

Pieces of Whimsey – Excerpt

“What are you mumbling about down there, dear sister,” said Slone, “No one here’s going to answer your call for help…not even your honorable king. Where is old lover boy anyway, huh?” Slone just rambled on.

Fictionally – Excerpt

That night’s sleep was hard to come by. Kellan tossed about with fitful dreams and kept waking up, a few times wet with sweat. It wasn’t nightmares from the war, though she had had plenty of those when she first moved in. It was tranquil scenes from Errigal’s landscape, the faces of Osma and Master Hewitt, and the library walls. Feeling like she was going insane, she finally gave up and got up from bed.

The CloakThe Cloak
Sarah Jennings
Inspirational YA Romantic Suspense
Paperback and ebook, 194 pages
November 2014

Kellan McKensie, Princess of Errigal, is set on leaving for another world before being thrust into a plan of God’s choosing that includes learning of her past, embracing her future, and finding her forever love.

Among a lost line of beautiful, wise queens and a conquered country still clinging to medieval traditions in today’s world, can Kellan be convinced that now is her time to act? Why should she? To the entire country, she doesn’t even exist. Ever the reluctant leader, Kellan is pressured to use her incredible God-given abilities to bring back the glory of her homeland. To do so, she must fight her own will, overcome fears, and control her temper. It’s a lot to ask of a girl hidden under a cloak her whole life.

Amazon

Sarah Jennings is an American storyteller living in the hills of North Carolina with her husband, four children, and escape artist hound dog. Her stories often revolve around strong willed heroines who find their way with God’s help during their adventures and in the process find their soulmate too. The Cloak is one such story now available in print and ebook format.

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Tour-Wide Giveaway

$25 Amazon Gift Card – Open Internationally
Celtic Prize Pack: Paperback of The Cloak and Celtic Music CDs – US Only
2 Paperbacks of The Cloak – US Only
2 ebooks of The Cloak – Open Internationally
Ends March 22nd

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Prism Book Tours

CrossReads Book Blast: Service Station Angel

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Service Station Angel
By Lisa J. Schuster

About the Book:

Sometimes God places you in a situation of great perplexity, but you perceive His intentions are premeditated and purposeful. Do you trust His lead?

“Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.” – Psalms 37:7 (NIV)

Ernie Price is a middle-aged, humble-hearted man who owns and operates a service station in a rural Midwest town in Upper Michigan, back in a time when full service was the only service, and you got your windows cleaned and your tires pumped for free.

Ernie’s life has been a reflection of God’s love, giving of himself fully and graciously to people in the community and his church. As music director for the children’s choir or hosting the yearly Christmas party for the less-fortunate children in town, Ernie impacted lives and was loved by many.

When trouble rocks the small town and Ernie is physically incapacitated to offer his help, the community is left to pick up the pieces, mourn, and move on, while Ernie wrestles with the spiritual questions of his accident:

My glimpse of heaven is for what purpose on earth?

Why do I feel compelled to help this stranger know the love of the Lord? Who is this stranger anyway?

This heartwarming story of love, faithful forgiveness and following God’s perfect plan, will inspire and delight!

LINK to KINDLE | LINK to PAPERBACK

80c6dd3e31f90a82390bef.L._V366868119_SX200_Faith, family and friends inspired Lisa J. Schuster to write again and God nudged her to publish her first novel, Service Station Angel. She believes the words in this book are her service to others, so that they may find joy and comfort during a season of time when they need it most. “May your hand reach up towards His so that you may touch another with Jesus’ abundant love,” prays Lisa.

Lisa lives in Highlands Ranch, Colorado with her husband and two children. She enjoys creative writing, traveling, working with inner city youth, bible study groups, singing and theater.

Follow Lisa J. Schuster

Website | Facebook | Twitter

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This book blast is hosted by Crossreads.

We would like to send out a special THANK YOU to all of the CrossReads book blast bloggers!

CSFF Blog Tour: Sci-fi and MLP

And so the CSFF blog tour begins again. This month’s book is Numb, written by John Otte and published by Marcher Lord Press.

Numb is science fiction, a distinction in Christian speculative fiction these days. At some point fantasy became the dominant subgenre, trailed by apocalyptic fiction, dystopians, the angel/demon stories, “supernatural thrillers” (basically horror, people), and, yes, science fiction.

With an abundance of fantasy to enjoy, I am always happy to come across Christian sci-fi. I like well-done sci-fi as much as well-done fantasy, and I don’t often find it in my wanderings through Christian fiction. I was glad to receive Numb for review, and I will be glad to write about it these next two days.

Numb is, as far as I know, the first book released by Marcher Lord Press to be toured by the CSFF. But then, my knowledge of CSFF tours is not exactly exhaustive, so you probably don’t want to quote me on that. I won’t even mention any speculation that this month’s tour of Numb is somehow resultant of MLP changing hands at the beginning of the year. So you shouldn’t quote me on that, either, unless of course we learn someday that it’s true, in which case you can tell everyone you heard it here first.

But enough rumor-mongering. On to the links:

Numb on Amazon;

John Otte’s website;

and the blog tour, so that you may see what our tourers made of this sci-fi offering:

Julie Bihn
Jennifer Bogart
Keanan Brand
Beckie Burnham
Pauline Creeden
Vicky DealSharingAunt
Carol Gehringer
Victor Gentile
Rebekah Gyger
Nikole Hahn
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Emileigh Latham
Rebekah Loper
Jennette Mbewe
Amber McCallister
Shannon McNear
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Joan Nienhuis
Nissa
Faye Oygard
Writer Rani
Nathan Reimer
Jojo Sutis
Rachel Starr Thomson
Steve Trower
Shane Werlinger
Phyllis Wheeler
Nicole White


Review: Greetings From the Flipside

Hope Landon has had a hard time. When she was a little girl, her father disappeared mysteriously; when she was a teenager, her unique mother left her wondering if it was possible to drop dead from cringing too often. As an adult, she’s been stuck in the nothing-town Poughkeepsie. And now, just when she thinks she’s about to escape her life, her fiance jilts her on her wedding day.

Then somebody steals her car. There’s a hospital involved soon enough.

And Hope is about ready to give up on hope.

Greetings From the Flipside is the second collaboration between Rene Gutteridge and Cheryl McKay. I read their novel Never the Bride a few years ago and loved it. So as soon as I heard about Greetings From the Flipside, I wanted to read it.

There’s a lot of humor in this novel, as I had hoped; Hope is an entertaining narrator, and there are many funny moments. At the same time, an undercurrent of seriousness flows through the story. The characters seem, most of them, to be struggling.

Greetings From the Flipside has an unconventional structure: The beginning and ending chapters are in the third-person past tense, but the majority of the chapters only begin that way; then they flip to first-person present tense.

Here I am going to plunge into what I believe, after looking at the reviews, is the most controversial part of the book. I think the spoilers are light, but those who want to be spoiler-free should probably skip to the end of the review. Now, here we go:

Hope spends the majority of the book in a coma, and the third-person narrative at the chapters’ beginning takes place in what we call the real world, and the first-person narrative is the dream-world of Hope’s coma. Briefly, the main character spends most of the story unconscious. Some people disliked this.

I think it worked, and for several reasons. Due to the medical fact that comatose people can have some awareness of what is happening around them – and perhaps also to the suggestion of another realm – the two worlds do interact. The same drama plays out in each of them. Hope’s adventures, in one sense, never happened, but the central question of the story – Will she come back? – was answered in them.

Another reason it worked is that the authors made it fun. Sometimes it was funny to see the real world breaking into Hope’s dreams; sometimes it had the fun of a mystery. (I knew those random letters added up to something.) I came to look for any cross between the real world and the coma-world; their overlap fascinated me.

The novel’s overall theme is one of hope: Jake holding onto hope, though he sometimes doubted, and Hope ready to bid a snarky good-bye to hope, although she had, deep down, a scrap she couldn’t let go. True and false hope both take their turns on the stage.

Greetings From the Flipside executes a unique concept with deftness, all the while mixing its serious questions with humor. The style is engaging, the writing is skillful, and the characters are sympathetic – altogether an original and compelling romance.

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”

CSFF Blog Tour: Other Mills

Yesterday I mentioned G. K. Chesterton’s opinion that pagans practiced demonic rites because they knew they were terrible. Today I will provide excerpts from The Everlasting Man where he wrote this.

This passage also touches on the issue of magic in Christian fiction, which Becky Miller raised in her post. I believe that Christians who categorically reject all “magic” in fiction are misguided, but not as misguided as people who breezily accept all magic without a thought. Witchcraft, under all its various names, is a great evil, and also a great danger. If we are going to handle it properly – even in reading and writing fiction – first we must understand it properly.

Chesterton wrote of the fictional King Dives: “The mills of God grind slowly, and he works with other mills.” And the root of both witchcraft and human sacrifice, as Chesterton illustrates in The Everlasting Man, is a desire to work with other mills.


Whether it be because the Fall has really brought men nearer to less desirable neighbours in the spiritual world, or whether it is merely that the mood of men eager or greedy finds it easier to imagine evil, I believe that the black magic of witchcraft has been much more practical and much less poetical than the white magic of mythology. I fancy the garden of the witch has been kept much more carefully than the woodland of the nymph. I fancy the evil field has even been more fruitful than the good. To start with, some impulse, perhaps a sort of desperate impulse, drove men to the darker powers when dealing with practical problems. There was a sort of secret and perverse feeling that the darker powers would really do things; that they had no nonsense about them. And indeed that popular phase exactly expresses the point. The gods of mere mythology had a great deal of nonsense about them. They had a great deal of good nonsense about them; in the happy and hilarious sense in which we talk of the nonsense of Jabberwocky or the Land where Jumblies live. But the man consulting a demon felt as many a man has felt in consulting a detective, especially a private detective; that it was dirty work but the work would really be done. A man did not exactly go into the wood to meet a nymph; he rather went with the hope of meeting a nymph. It was an adventure rather than an assignation. But the devil really kept his appointments and even in one sense kept his promises; even if a man sometimes wished afterwards, like Macbeth, that he had broken them.

In the accounts given us of many rude or savage races we gather that the cult of demons often came after the cult of deities, and even after the cult of one single and supreme deity. It may be suspected that in almost all such places the higher deity is felt to be too far off for appeal in certain petty matters, and men invoke the spirits because they are in a more literal sense familiar spirits. But with the idea of employing the demons who get things done, a new idea appears more worthy of the demons. It may indeed be truly described as the idea of being worthy of the demons; of making oneself fit for their fastidious and exacting society. Superstition of the lighter sort toys with the idea that some trifle, some small gesture such as throwing the salt, may touch the hidden spring that works the mysterious machinery of the world. And there is after all something in the idea of such an Open Sesame. But with the appeal to lower spirits comes the horrible notion that the gesture must not only be very small but very low; that it must be a monkey trick of an utterly ugly and unworthy sort. Sooner or later a man deliberately sets himself to do the most disgusting thing he can think of. It is felt that the extreme of evil will extort a sort of attention or answer from the evil powers under the surface of the world. This is the meaning of most of the cannibalism in the world. For most cannibalism is not a primitive or even a bestial habit. It is artificial and even artistic, a sort of art for art’s sake. Men do not do it because they do not think it horrible; but, on the contrary, because they do think it horrible. They wish, in the most literal sense, to sup on horrors. That is why it is often found that rude races like the Australian natives are not cannibals; while much more refined and intelligent races, like the New Zealand Maories, occasionally are. They are refined and intelligent enough to indulge sometimes in a self-conscious diabolism. But if we could understand their minds, or even really understand their language, we should probably find that they were not acting as ignorant, that is as innocent cannibals. They are not doing it because they do not think it wrong, but precisely because they do think it wrong. They are acting like a Parisian decadent at a Black Mass. But the Black Mass has to hide underground from the presence of the real Mass. In other words, the demons have really been in hiding since the coming of Christ on earth. … In the ancient world the demons often wandered abroad like dragons. They could be positively and publicly enthroned as gods. Their enormous images could be set up in public temples in the centre of populous cities. And all over the world the traces can be found of this striking and solid fact, so curiously overlooked by the moderns who speak of all such evil as primitive and early in evolution, that as a matter of fact some of the very highest civilisations of the world were the very places where the horns of Satan were exalted, not only to the stars but in the face of the sun.

Take for example the Aztecs and American Indians of the ancient empires of Mexico and Peru. They were at least as elaborate as Egypt or China … Swinburne, in that spirited chorus of the nations in ‘Songs before Sunrise,’ used an expression about Spain in her South American conquests which always struck me as very strange. He said something about ‘her sins and sons through sinless lands dispersed,’ and how they ‘made accursed the name of man and thrice accursed the name of God.’ It may be reasonable enough that he should say the Spaniards were sinful, but why in the world should he say that the South Americans were sinless? Why should he have supposed that continent to be exclusively populated by archangels or saints perfect in heaven? It would be a strong thing to say of the most respectable neighbourhood; but when we come to think of what we really do know of that society the remark is rather funny. We know that the sinless priests of this sinless people worshipped sinless gods, who accepted as the nectar and ambrosia of their sunny paradise nothing but incessant human sacrifice accompanied by horrible torments. We may note also in the mythology of this American civilisation that element of reversal or violence against instinct of which Dante wrote; which runs backwards everywhere through the unnatural religion of the demons. It is notable not only in ethics but in aesthetics. A South American idol was made as ugly as possible, as a Greek image was made as beautiful as possible. They were seeking the secret of power, by working backwards against their own nature and the nature of things. There was always a sort of yearning to carve at last, in gold or granite or the dark red timber of the forests, a face at which the sky itself would break like a cracked mirror.

CSFF Blog Tour: Weird R Us

“I’ve been coming to Montserrat for a few years now. On one early visit I actually arrived and realized I had returned before the last time I was here! From Brother Lazarus’ point of view, we had not yet had the previous visit.” She gave a little laugh. “That was a real mind bender. In the end, I had to go away again because it was all just too weird.” – The Spirit Well, pg. 322

Last week I posted that I was thinking about why Christian speculative fiction is called weird. I also wrote that the question could be somewhat answered by The Spirit Well, and then I said I would hold that thought for the blog tour.

So here goes.

The “weird” label is not wholly imposed on Christian speculative fiction. Some in our crowd would dispute it, but some embrace it. If they embrace it as the American colonists embraced the song “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, that’s more than I can say.

If you were to browse through a Christian fiction section, the scattered sci-fi / fantasy novels might seem strange amidst all the historical fiction, prairie romance, and mystery novels. If you were a Christian SF fan, you might feel a little strange.

But I think there are reasons that go beyond the Christian market and Christian fiction. The “weird” label is broadly given to speculative fiction; the secular version receives it, too. I grant you, popular acclaim was awarded to fantasy such as Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, and to sci-fi such as Star Wars and Star Trek. Yet …

How often, in popular culture, does the loner or the weirdo have an interest in speculative works? It’s standard for the geek to be a sci-fi fan – even of a mainstream success like Star Wars. If someone says that you’re at the Star Trek convention of life, it’s no compliment.

To give a full explanation of this is beyond my intent. The endless conspiracy theories surrounding Roswell, Area 51, and the Bermuda Triangle probably have something to do with it.

And that leads us to another reason. These strange ideas are the sort of thing you would find in speculative fiction. They’re the sort of thing you do find in speculative fiction. To this day sci-fi writers enthusiastically take up all of those conspiracy theories. When the beliefs of the tinfoil-hat crowd are fodder for your genre, maybe it is a little weird.

The Twilight Zone was weird. The premise of Metamorphosis – a guy gets transmuted into a giant cockroach – is definitely weird. Selling away your shadow or tears or laugh or voice is also on the odd side of things.

Even The Spirit Well – which isn’t weird as the genre goes – is chock-full of experiences any human would consider bizarre. If you or I ever clomped through the Stone Ages, or walked into a canyon in Arizona and found ourselves in Damascus seventy years ago, we would write home about it – unless we were worried about being brought in for examination.

What I’m getting at is this: One of the reasons speculative fiction – Christian and otherwise – is called weird is that it is weird. Not in a pejorative sense, but simply in the sense of being out of the ordinary. Whether we dream of enchanted woods or strange planets, whether it’s Elves or time-travelers or talking animals that we meet in our stories – it’s all different, all outside the bounds of the world we know. And that’s the point, isn’t it?