If You Listen Carefully, at the End You’ll Be Somebody Else

My grandmother is a storyteller. She has long, curly, red hair and flowers on her jeans. She looks at you like she knows a secret, and she does. If you think you’re too old to sit down and listen to a story from a woman with curly red hair and paint on her shoes, you are taking yourself too seriously. If you believe fairytales are a silly notion that you must abandon in order to become a well-adjusted adult, you are going to make a terrible adult, stunted in imagination and courage.

This is the secret my grandmother knows: there is much more to life than fact. Fairytales can teach us how to be brave in a way that no checklist can. Fictional stories are not a distraction from reality; they are a guide for how to function in our reality. Both the fairytale and our reality are full of pain, fear, and mystery. In The Red Angel, G.K. Chesterton reminds us of the merit of the fairytale, saying, “The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy-tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon…it accustoms him by a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors have a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies, that these infinite enemies of man have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.”

When was the last time you heard about anyone defeating a dragon?  They still exist as they did in your imagination when you were young, but they look different now. They look like racism, exploitation, poverty, human trafficking, mental illness, sexism. The fact that there is, for example, no guaranteed solace for individuals living with severe schizophrenia or no final solution in sight to abolish child sex slavery proves to me that this world is much more insane than anything I’ve read in a book. And if you think these aren’t the dragons you personally are faced with, you are wrong.  Fairytales teach us that dragons that plague a land are the responsibility of all who inhabit the land. These dragons are to be defeated, not ignored or tolerated. The heroes we read about in stories aren’t just fighting personal dragons; they’re fighting dragons that are terrorizing their kingdom. Our favorite heroes—Bilbo, Frodo, Harry, Hermione, The Pevensies—all come to a point where they have to decide whether to stay in their safe part of the world or to pick up a sword or a wand and respond to the evil they see. Regardless of how these heroes feel, the realization comes that their “safe part of the world” won’t remain safe much longer if they stay. The real heroes know a person can never truly ignore evil. If he or she does, it will only grow.

Fairytales don’t just teach us that we cannot ignore evil, they also show us what slaying a dragon looks like. Slaying dragons is hard. The hero must make a decision that she or he will continue to fight evil each day, even in the mundane or hopeless times. Maybe in our lifetime we will not slay the dragons of poverty or human trafficking, because slaying those dragons might take longer than a lifetime. Maybe defeating evil systems looks like the tiny task of waking up in the morning and deciding to respond to the existence of evil on this earth with something other than despair, bitterness, or complacency. We can wake up in the morning and love the world all over again by partaking in a quiet, consistent faithfulness and hope. Maybe heroism can simply be to love as best we can and hope as best we can, following the Spirit as He makes us aware of the dragons that are in our world and how to respond to them.

Once we find our dragons and begin our fight, fairytales give us a correct view of what victory is. It is difficult to imagine what the final victory for us as Christians will be like. We see small victories all the time: a sick man healed, a broken family restored, a human trafficking victim rehabiliated.  While we wait for the final victory wherein Christ restores all things, it is easy to forget the importance of the small tasks on this earth. As readers, we know Voldemort has to be defeated, and we can see which of Harry’s actions lead to the defeat of Voldemort. For us, it’s more difficult to know the impact of our actions. Living each day in faithfulness to God and with love for our neighbor might not seem like doing anything important at all, but it is this little, daily faithfulness that leads to the true death of the dragon. The historical St. George did not slay a literal dragon: he was martyred in Rome because he refused to renounce Christ. There must have been a thousand opportunities between his conversion and death to choose a different path, but in the face of adversity he continued to choose faithfulness. I wonder if he realized that he was truly slaying the dragon of evil in holding fast to truth until the very end.

This is why fairytales help us in a way that other stories cannot. It is easier to choose love and faithfulness when we see that doing so is a step in the process of defeating dragons. When we can’t see the entire picture of reconciliation and restoration that we as God’s children get to participate in, the fairytale lets us in on someone else’s completed story of reconciliation, and reminds us that our individual lives are part of the story that Christ will complete one day.

At the beginning of Mahabharata, one of the great (initially spoken) Sanskrit epics of ancient India, Vyasa says, “If you listen carefully, at the end you’ll be someone else.” So I encourage you: if you want to be brave, listen. The stories will change you. The heroes will teach you, and you will be empowered with courage and a hope “that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.”

 

Let Writers Be Unashamed of Having Homemade Imaginations

In my last article, I gave a broad overview of interest-based living .  This follows with a specific instance of an unfolding interest that has actually resulted deeper immersion in my communities and greater liberty as an artist.

Writing strong short stories is a recent interest of mine, but it is I was unintentionally prepared for. I come from a small hometown and a tight-knit family. I picked up on lots of the details about the culture of my immediate and local surroundings.  Happily, I discovered that short story fiction reads best when they simmer with an indigenous flavor. Why is that so? Well, there’s this instinctual, three-part code that raises the short-story writer from infancy. Its persistent purpose is one thing; keeping the story poignant and sincere by grounding it local culture.

Dialogue is sifted through filters called ‘dialects’ 

It makes for irretrievably bland reading when characters time their words, pursue ideas, and cuss with undifferentiated style. It’s suspicious. Maybe the characters are just surrogates for the author’s pet thought projects. After all, experience shows us that conversations are not under the control of one mind and we wouldn’t enjoy them if they were. The author can defer to that by giving each character its own dialect; its own distinct pattern of funneling thoughts into words and words into sentences. These patterns are the foundation of dialect.

Dialects are languages within languages. Think of the genteel verbal graces of a Southerner or the contrasting caterwaul of a bog-dwelling hick. Whereas an actor relies on the sound of the accent for embellishment, a writer configures his words precisely so that a sounding accent is irrelevant. It’s simply felt in the word choices. The process is to mull between, say, what characters repeat and what they would never say, whether they always speak in complete sentences and why they say “gender” not “sex.” All these sorts of differentiating decisions intensify each character with a habitual, ingrained dialect.

Characters are in behavior, not postures.

Sometimes you read a story where you can’t stop visualizing everyone in some sort of pose. They aren’t moving anywhere or handling anything. Unless the majority of us grew up in photo shoots and fashion shows, that isn’t what we are accustomed to expect from humans, especially in the current age where we even greet each other with salutations to our busyness.

“How are you?”

“Doing this, this and this thanks.”

“I see. I as well. That’s actually why I have to go…”

Plausibility emerges when characters are doing things: washing the dishes, defacing public monuments, putting on wedding veils, etc. Characters are attempts to represent people; they deserve a psyche outfitted with the ordinary, common stuff of birthplaces, families, and favorite foods.

Once you give them an activity, you put them in context. Are they washing the dishes by hand? Is a dishwasher doing most of the work? How many other times has this person pasted art on public monuments? In the few words which answer these questions, you add a time and a place to the character’s psyche. The more they become believably native to some place and time, the more likely it is that they truthfully portray an actual human.

Perspective has consistent bias

Perspective is the frame of the story; it is the deciding line between what is included and what is excluded.  Short stories resonate with peculiar integrity when they are told from the viewpoint of a single narrator. None of those omniscient intrusions from the author to invoke a muse or explain the meaning of the parable. Anytime in a real conversation when a person attempts an all-seeing, all-knowing statement, we usually treat as their perspective and consider it from our own perspective.

The implication is that short story perspective is biased. The viewpoint doesn’t move from character to character but stays faithful to the perception, assumptions and empathies of one person. The character gives us a taste of his own experience without pretending to have the omniscience of God. At its most meaningful moments, the character’s perspective will not be universally meaningful. Instead, it’s tremendously meaningful to a certain person, his surroundings and his people. Biased perspective allows local flavor to emerge at its strongest.

These three boundary lines push me to find inspiration in the local culture of my hometown and of my townspeople.  This directly assists a valid danger I encounter in trying to live an interest-based life. Sometimes, new interests make us feel naïve because our curiosity is directed right at what we don’t know. And in a culture which prizes experts, it’s embarrassing when you only have half the puzzle; you’d really like to have more. The short story code helps me beyond the fear of not knowing because it redirects me from a vague, bleak unknown. I have intimate knowledge of my home. I and only I may claim mastery of my experiences. The question of expertise dismissed, I am free to nurture my interest without the fear of speaking ignorantly.

And as a beautiful result, this artistic freedom encourages me to go deeper into my community. It leads me into nursing homes, opens my eyes to the homeless and less fortunate and keeps me loyal to even the most difficult family relationships.

An Interview With Lars Walker

trollEditor’s note: See our review of  Troll Valley by Lars Walker here.

EO: Hi Lars, thanks for taking the time to do this interview for us.  I’d like to ask a couple questions about Troll Valley first, then about Christian Fantasy in general.  

First, is Troll Valley based on a true story?

LW: Troll Valley is a sort of valentine to the town and church where I grew up, and to my grandparents’ generation. I use places and cultural elements I knew, and I’ve worked in some elements of my family history, but the people and events are fictional.

EO: Where did the idea for Troll Valley come from? What were your inspirations? How did the story take shape?

LW: The first time I read Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories,” in high school, it occurred to me how strange (and frightening) it would be to have a real fairy godmother. The character of Miss Margit in this story grew from that. Also, I’d always wanted to write a story about a big house in my home town (actually pictured on the book cover), so I installed my fictional family in it. And one day, years ago, I saw a young boy with a crippled arm in an ice cream store. I began to wonder what it would be like to be him. That crystalized the character of Chris.

EO: What was your hope for Troll Valley, in terms of its impact on the reader?

LW: This is the most personal book I ever wrote. It’s an attempt to explain the kind of pietism I grew up with to people unfamiliar with it, and to do a gentle critique as well. It’s also a kind of microcosm of the development of Progressivism out of Evangelicalism during the early 20th Century. I guess a lot of the purpose is just to teach some history.

EO: Do you intentionally try to inject your stories with gritty realism to make them cooler and more appealing, or is it something more than that?

LW: Gritty realism isn’t any thing I think about as such. I always try to just tell the truth about life. I’m not big on easy answers, and I never answer all the questions in a story. Nobody’s going to believe the answers you offer if they know you’re lying to them about the way the world is.

EO: I usually would not recommend “Christian fiction” to my non-Christian friends, but I love to recommend your books. Do you intend them to be a kind of evangelistic tool?

LW: Certainly I want to spread the gospel through my fiction, but not by preaching (though I do preach sometimes; I try to do it in an oblique or disarming manner). Again, Job One is telling the truth (even in a fantasy). If you believe your message, telling the truth will extend to telling the truth about the big questions.

EO: The one thing I’d like to know most: Do you think the Norse gods and other mythical creatures were real in some sense, whether demonic powers or something else?

LW: I have no idea. Perhaps one of the reasons I can write fantasy comfortably is that the supernatural generally keeps its distance from my life. I believe that unexplainable things happen (they certainly happened in Bible times, at least), but they don’t happen much around me. In my books, the heathen gods are usually portrayed as either demons or some kind of elemental spirit, and magic is mostly discovered to be some kind of illusion.

EO: Do you think mythology and fantasy are ever incompatible with Christianity? Is there any fantasy that a Christian shouldn’t read or write?

LW: This falls under the “do not give offense” principle from Romans 14. People misunderstand this. It doesn’t mean “Give no offense to people who think they know everything and like to judge others.” It means “Don’t do anything that will cause someone with a weakness or a bad habit to fall back into old sinful patterns of behavior.” Some people can handle all kinds of fantasy; other people ought to stay away from some (or all) of them. I don’t generally advise my own books for young teens, for instance. Outside Christian fantasy, I haven’t read widely enough to make an educated statement, but I believe there are some fantasy books, comics, movies, etc. that are so rooted in the demonic that Christians ought to avoid them. An exception might be made for people doing criticism for the purpose of cautioning others.

EO: Thanks very much!

Find out more about Lars, his upcoming books and other projects at LarsWalker.com.

Don’t Knock My Fictional Feelings!

The old man had been on the sea for days; the marlin pulled his small boat hour after hour. My mouth was dry, nearly salty. I felt the weight of isolation–the weight of being on a vast ocean that is void of another human form. Ernest Hemmingway tossed me into the skiff and sent it to sea.

Fiction has the power to do this—to create experiences that evoke real emotional responses. Story, though understood by its reader to be non-reality, has the power to spark emotions that are otherwise reserved for real events, even though the reader understands they are only real in his imagination. In philosophy of literature, this is called the ‘paradox of fiction’: we react to acknowledged non-reality as through reality.

Why should we care? Well, for one, when an educator or parent must make decisions of censorship or filtering media, this question is pivotal. If ‘fictive experiences’ are derivative from our prior experiences in ‘reality’, then handing A Clockwork Orange to a 10-year-old shouldn’t harm them too much. But if fiction, when experienced as though it is real, has the power to actually create new experiences and understanding, the stakes rise exponentially.

Some philosophers have taken a position somewhere in-between. Kendall Walton, author of Mimesis as Make-Believe, takes a philosophical look into the purpose and effect of representational art, including literary fiction. Walton’s work was recommended to me by a professor, but though it was an intriguing read, I was incredulous concerning Walton’s explanation of fiction.

Response to fiction relies on the reader/viewer’s active participation, he said.  Walton compares fiction to games of make-believe, and concludes that we intentionally suspend judgments of ‘reality’ so that we can fully experience representational art.

But I did not think Walton’s theory was intuitively true. While watching a horror film, I’ve found solace in reminding myself that is it ‘not real’; I did not first enter into the film’s world by actively setting aside its ‘non-reality’.

Not that Walton is wrong, per se. I just don’t think he’s finished answering the question. Make-believe can account for some fiction-inspired experience, but not all. Sure, the imagination is powerful, but an author who can write a subtle, sublime piece of fiction seems able to subsume a reader into the images, rather than vice versa.

Danièle Moyal-Sharrock, in her article “The Fiction of Paradox: Really Feeling for Anna Karenina,” offers a compelling response to Walton’s theory:

Literary characters and situations prompt real, full-fledged emotions that often have prolonged, even life-long, impact. Indeed, so real was the fear that Hitchcock’s The Birds spurred in me when I watched it at the age of nine that I know it to be responsible for my still-existent ornithophobia. And what of the emotions provoked by Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) which caused so many young men at the end of the eighteenth century to commit suicide? Can we call these ‘make-believe’? …our ordinary responses to fictional characters are genuine responses.

We don’t react to fiction in spite of its being fiction, she says, but because it is fiction. For example, Tolstoy’s deliberate and subtle description of Anna Karenina and her demise probably creates a stronger emotional reaction than if we read of a ‘real-life’ suicide in the newspaper.

In other words, fiction sometimes gives us more real experiences than real events. Dr. Moyal-Sharrock, citing Aristotle, argues that fiction is formative and educational. It ‘enhances our understanding’ of the world and what it means to be human. In that, even the darkest tragedy can be pleasurable: humans are designed to seek knowledge and understanding apart from utilitarian usability or two-dimensional rosiness.

I believe most educators are not adequately aware of how powerful fiction is, both in terms of responsibility and possibility. When a piece of literature is assigned, a teacher should think about what experiences the student (or child) is likely to encounter and be ready to discuss them. I did not learn of grief when someone I knew died; I learned of it when Rab stood firm at Lexington, taking a fatal bullet at the end of Johnny Tremain (Esther Forbes).

The nature of fiction inspired experience is an inexplicable mystery. Philosophy of literature, when poorly done, tries to circumvent mystery with ad hoc categories. Done well, as in Moyal-Sharrock’s article, it focuses instead on how experiencing fiction teaches us about being human. In light of that, of course, we should also know what a piece of fiction teaches. As any lover of literature can tell you, fiction may be fictive, but its lessons are real—and sometimes, all-too-real.

In Defense of Frank Peretti

 

(Note: for simplicity, the term “Christian fiction” in this post is used to refer to Evangelical Christian fiction.)

Ask many Christians what’s wrong with Christian literature, and you’re likely to get an earful. The list of bad Christian fiction is long, and one author tops most lists: Frank Peretti, most notably author of This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness.

The criticisms of Peretti have quite a range: to some people he’s too overtly Christian, to others he focuses too much on the occult. For some the characterization of the people in his novels in the problem, and others find his plots too cliché. His books almost always include a dramatic conversion, angelic warfare, and New Age rituals that turn out to be Satanic in origin.

Some of this criticism is fair. Peretti isn’t the best of Christian authors, but then he never claimed to be. (He has repeatedly stated that he enjoys writing about demons and the occult because he has had a life-long love of monster stories. When he realized that demons were the ultimate monsters, he decided to write about them.) The characters in his earlier works do tend to serve in fairly standard Christian roles (pastor, teacher, etc), and there is rarely a truly unexpected turn of events.

However, Peretti deserves far more praise than criticism. When This Present Darkness was published in 1986, the only other openly Christian stories on the popular market were historical romances, modern romances, and children’s books. Peretti dared to try something new, something that was not a sure sell with his audience.

Peretti’s stories had real spiritual and physical danger, and his characters didn’t always survive intact. Spiritual threats were taken seriously. There was little to no romance in the books (a very welcome relief to some), and Peretti’s characters grew more complex over the years. The Visitation picked up on many of his old themes about demonic activity (though no demons actually show themselves) but also told a highly compelling story of disillusionment with the established church and life in the Christian community.

Though some of his writing is cliché, Peretti’s characters do manage to come to life on the page, and speak in their own voices. No-one who read his books would confuse Travis Jordan, the burned-out pastor from The Visitation, with Hank Busche, the struggling pastor in This Present Darkness. Though both characters have similar roles, Peretti manages to make each of them distinct and unique-a more difficult task than most people realize. He creates memorable locations and towns, and has a talent for creating an atmosphere of believability.

Why are we so quick to dismiss Peretti? Even at his most clichéd, his writing is no worse than the formula fiction that stocks airport bookracks. Perhaps we cringe at Peretti’s writing because it is hard to defend in a materialistic world: he makes no bones about the reality of supernatural. While much of Christian fiction implies the presence of the supernatural, Peretti not only tackles it head-on, but sets a significant portion of the action in the world of the spirit. He defends that which is most indefensible in a skeptic’s world.

Though they might not rise to the heights of literature one hopes to see from Evangelical fiction, Peretti’s early books did something very important: they opened a door. With the popularity of This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness, up and coming authors were more free to branch out, to explore, to use other genres of fiction. In any Evangelical fiction catalog, one can now find detective fiction (The Danielle Ross series), comedy (The Wally McDoogle books), adventure stories (The Heirs of Cahira O’Connor series), and many more. It is even arguable that Peretti’s ground-breaking stories allowed Christians to be more engaged with the Harry Potter, Golden Compass, and Twilight series. Such books are no longer “off-limits,” but open for reading and debate.

It is to be hoped that one day Christian fiction will no longer be a genre unto itself, but will have branched into all genres, with masterpieces in each. When that day comes, we should thank Frank Peretti. ‘