Violence in the Bible and other Christian books

A little while ago, the discussion on the CSFF blog tour turned to the violence, or lack of it, in Donita Paul’s Dragons of the Valley. Becky LuElla Miller wrote a couple posts about violence in Christian fiction, and particularly fantasy. I’ve decided to throw in a couple thoughts of my own.

It can be tricky to set standards for violence. There are at least two issues that complicate it. For one, violence – unlike, say, crude humor – may be either moral or immoral. For an example of moral violence, let’s go to the Scriptures:

While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, 2 who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate and bowed down before these gods. 3 So Israel joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor. And the LORD’s anger burned against them.

4 The LORD said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of these people, kill them and expose them in broad daylight before the LORD, so that the LORD’s fierce anger may turn away from Israel.”

5 So Moses said to Israel’s judges, “Each of you must put to death those of your men who have joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor.”

6 Then an Israelite man brought to his family a Midianite woman right before the eyes of Moses and the whole assembly of Israel while they were weeping at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. 7 When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand 8 and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear through both of them—through the Israelite and into the woman’s body. Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped; 9 but those who died in the plague numbered 24,000.

10 The LORD said to Moses, 11 “Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites; for he was as zealous as I am for my honor among them, so that in my zeal I did not put an end to them. 12Therefore tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him. 13 He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites.” (Numbers 25)

This is the irony of moral violence: You save life by taking it. Phinehas killed two people, and God rewarded him with a covenant of peace. But for all that Phinehas’ act is commendable, I wouldn’t want to see it on a screen. I wouldn’t even want to read it in any more detail than the Bible already gives.

Which brings us to the other issue of presenting violence: It’s the how as much as the what. It’s not just a head count of how many people died, or a page count of how many fight scenes were narrated. What violence the characters experience, and what violence the readers experience, can be very different things.

Let’s look again at the Bible. It has a large amount of violence, but a small amount of description. It relates gruesome deaths, but with a great tendency to avoid the gruesome details. The Bible tells us that Jael drove the tent peg through Sisera’s temple, and Saul fell on his sword, and Herodias got John’s head on a platter – and leaves it at that. Apparently it was necessary that we hear about certain violent acts; apparently it was not necessary that we wade through the carnage of those acts.

Becky asked if we must all follow Donita Paul’s lead. I don’t think we have to follow her in keeping things “light”, or in avoiding battle scenes. But I think we would all do well to have a general chariness about violence. Violence is a dark thing even when it’s a good thing, and there are places we can go but shouldn’t linger. It ought to be true of violence in Christian fantasy – as it is true of violence in the Bible – that a great deal more could have been told than was told.

And it really is possible to write an awesome battle scene without pelting your readers with gory details and grisly images. There’s more value to it; there’s even more art. For proof positive of this, I send you to The Two Towers, to read the battle of Helm’s Deep.

A quick word on the CSFF blog tour: The next one begins February 21, and the book is The God-Hater, by Bill Myers. I finished it this past Sunday. Stay tuned, folks. This is going to be a fun one.

CSFF Blog Tour: Breaking the Love Triangle

I’m going to start off by putting a Spoiler Alert on this whole post. From here on in I’ll make free in discussing details from the book.

One of the interesting aspects of Dragons of the Valley was the love triangle. Bealomondore loved Tipper, Tipper loved Jayrus, and Jayrus loved … well, you couldn’t tell. Then, at the end, Jayrus eloquently proposes marriage, Tipper joyfully accepts, and they just step on Bealomondore’s heart.

At least that’s how I reacted. I don’t know how Bealomondore reacted, because the book ended without him giving a thought to the matter. Up until that point, he had been the main focus of the love triangle. Its most eloquent summation was when Bealomondore watched Tipper and Jayrus together and – simply, bittersweetly – thought of them as his princess and her prince.

I really thought that Bealomondore might be in the running. He had more far interaction with Tipper than Jayrus did, had in fact most of the sweet moments – and the funny ones, and the dangerous ones. It was also his journey more than anyone else’s, and matching him with the princess would have the virtue of being surprising. And when you add that Tipper’s emotions were still in the crush stage, and for all we knew Jayrus’ emotions were not in any stage – well, the only compelling reason not to bring Bealomondore and Tipper together was that he was a foot shorter than her.

Jayrus and Tipper feel natural together, and one can’t help feeling happy for Tipper. One also can’t help feeling sorry for Bealomondore. I’d be curious to know what other readers thought of the love triange and its resolution. I’d also be curious to know what Bealomondore thought of it. It was probably what he thought would happen, but you’d think he’d still sigh. I would.

The emotions and reality of the love triangle were brought home mainly by Bealomondore. Then, at the end, he was cut out without a second glance. It would have been nice if we had seen him react a bit. But maybe – just maybe – we’ll get a chance in Dragons of the Watch. Because, although Bealomondore didn’t get the girl, he did get the next book.

CSFF Blog Tour: A Judge, a Priest, a Paladin …

One of the main characters of the Chiril Chronicles is Jayrus, dragon-keeper and prince of something. A wizard proclaims him to be Chiril’s Paladin.

What is a paladin? According to my Dictionary, it is “a champion of a medieval prince”. According to Donita K. Paul, it’s some sort of spiritual leader who, by the by, is also a military champion.

Before joining the CSFF blog tour, I had never read any of Mrs. Paul’s work. When I saw that Dragons of the Valley was the second book in a series, I read the first. I understand she wrote another series with another Paladin, whom many readers took to be a Christ-figure. I am not going to consider Paladin as an archetype of Jesus. I have not read the previous books, and the Paladin of the books I did read never struck me as a Christ-figure.

He made me think instead of human deliverers God sent – the judges, the priests, the prophets, the kings. This is the angle I’ll be considering him from. (And luckily Fenworth will not see that last sentence!)

As I said, Paladin is a military champion. God sent many champions to Israel, and they had a curious habit of becoming – if they were not already – rulers.

Let us make a distinction: There were many – Jonathan, Barak, the Mighty Men – who were known for their exploits. Sometimes they brought about great and even miraculous victories. But it was the judges, not they, who were said to be sent by God to deliver Israel (Judges 2:16-19). For the judges, delivering Israel was contingent upon, or a presage to, their rule over the whole nation. The pattern holds with other men: Joshua, chosen to lead Israel into their inheritance, governed the nation as well as the conquest; both David and Saul, after being anointed king, saved their people from oppressors and invaders.

It didn’t seem to be assumed that Jayrus’ elevation to Paladin meant he was on his way to ruling Chiril. Indeed, he always submitted to King Yellat. However – spoilers, people – his marriage to Tipper pretty much locks up the country. Which happens after he becomes a military savior. Hmm.

Still, Paladin is not equivalent to a judge. The Paladin is even more strongly a spiritual figure than a military one. The judges were occasionally spiritual leaders: Deborah was a prophetess, Samuel a prophet, Eli the high priest. But these were cases of dual roles; they were the exception, not the rule. In the Paladin, champion and religious leader are one.

But what sort of religious leader? Not a priest, as Aaron was and Jesus is; not what we now call pastors or priests. Not even, really, a prophet. A prophet is defined by proclaiming, “Thus saith the Lord.” As far as I can recall, Jayrus never did.

A closer biblical archetype is apostle. Jayrus is chosen to bring the message of Wulder into Chiril, as the apostles first introduced the Gospel to the world. And he does seem to be the leader and founder of true religion in Chiril, as the apostles were leaders and founders in the Church. Yet playing deliverer and ruler would be wholly alien to “those reputed to be pillars”.

There are two things that set Donita Paul’s Paladin apart from all these figures. For one, he teaches largely through the use of parables. “He never seemed to make a point without using a story” – an obvious echo of Matthew 13:34, “Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable.”

Secondly, Paladin has powers that seem more magical than miraculous. Three examples:

(1) The illusions he weaves at the end of The Vanishing Sculpture. It was a nice effect in the story; you simply can’t see it being done by any prophet or apostle.

(2) His healing of Tipper’s foot. I don’t think any miracle was more often performed by Jesus and His apostles than miracles of healing. It is the execution that is different. Jesus and the apostles healed with a word; Jayrus seemed to have to work at it.

(3) Paladin interrogates a prisoner and causes bile to rise in his mouth whenever he lies. Later he threatens the man with a worse punishment if he disobeys. The flavor of this is fairy tales and fantasy – and not at all Scripture. Paladin’s powers as deliverer and spiritual leader greatly resemble Verrin Schope’s powers as wizard. It could be – I’m not sure how it works in Mrs. Paul’s world – that wizards and Paladins alike receive their abilities from Wulder.

Paladin is a unique creation – somewhat like a judge, somewhat like an apostle, a little like a wizard, and not exactly like any of them.