Why I Want to Be George R. R. Martin’s Neighbor

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[Editor’s note: We’re really excited about having Jeffrey Overstreet as one of our guest speakers at Hutchmoot 2013. Jeffrey has long been one of my favorite film critics and his book Through a Screen Darkly is a must read for anyone who loves movies—expect to see it on the Hutchmoot reading list. Jeffrey’s blog, Looking Closer (hosted at Patheos.com), is always insightful and the following post is a perfect example of why I enjoy it so much. He was kind enough to allow us to repost it here on the Rabbit Room. Click here to view the original post at Looking Closer.]


This article on “Christian fantasy” by novelist Lars Walker confesses something that may surprise his readers:

I don’t read much fantasy, and I read almost no Christian fantasy. I’ve been burned too many times. You buy a book, hoping to experience over again the joys great fantasy can provide (for me, the Mines of Moria, the Ride of the Rohirrim, and the resurrection of Aslan provided the greatest moments of joy I’ve ever experienced in literature), and what do you get? Wannabees. Wannabee Tolkiens, wannabee Lewises, wannabee (christened) George R. R. Martins.

While I might have named different storytelling moments—scenes from Watership Down, The Tale of Despereaux, Winter’s Tale, along with some from The Fellowship of the Ring—I found myself nodding in agreement.

But then I came upon this surprising paragraph:

Who’s writing good Christian fantasy today? . . . Walter Wangerin Jr. wrote one of the best fantasies of any kind I’ve ever read, The Book of the Dun Cow, an amazing animal story that I promise will break your heart and put it together again. Stephen Lawhead is an excellent writer who has never (in my opinion) soared to the heights he’s capable of. Jeffrey Overstreet may be the best.

Wow.

I’m honored and grateful and inspired to get back to work on my new novel. I’m grateful that Walker appreciates these books so much.

Walker’s a formidable storyteller himself. His novel Wolf Time is on my nightstand right now. (I tend to read a dozen books at a time, little by little, over many months, and this is the only fantasy novel currently in the mix.) So, to be highlighted by him is a huge encouragement, and it sends me toward a weekend of writing with new enthusiasm and confidence.

However—friends, family, and those who have been reading my blog for a while probably know what I’m about to say—for the sake of preventing misunderstanding, I am duty-bound to offer a contrary opinion. I know, it feels kind of self-defeating to disagree when somebody says something complimentary about my work, especially when that somebody is more experienced and more accomplished.

But here I go anyway . . .

I don’t write “Christian fantasy.”

I write fantasy.

While I do have some Christian readers, I don’t write stories for a Christian audience, nor are my stories designed to deliver “Christian messages.” There is no reason for my novels to be segregated from other novels, to be branded as part of some sub-genre.

I want my stories to be held to the standards of great fantasy writing. They may fail by that standard—only time, and greater imaginations than mine, will determine that. But “make-believe” is the game I’m playing, the tradition I’m following, the goal I’m seeking to achieve.

I wouldn’t know how to write “Christian fantasy” if I tried. I don’t know what it is. I don’t see labels for “Hindu fantasy” or “Buddhist fantasy” or “vegetarian fantasy” or “atheist fantasy” in the bookstores, and there’s a good reason for that. Art is about exploring possibilities, not fashioning messages or proselytizing. When artists start trying to “make points” or “deliver messages,” their art suffers and becomes something else.

Much of what I’m saying has been expressed here many times before, primarily in the foundational vision of my blog: “Mystery and Message,” by Michael Demkowicz. If you haven’t read it, check it out. It says a great deal in a few words.

You’re probably familiar with author Katherine Paterson. She wrote Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved. In a Books and Culture interview, she once said:

Novelists write out of their deepest selves. Whatever is there in them comes out willy-nilly, and it is not a conscious act on their part. If I were to consciously say, ‘This book shall now be a Christian book,’ then the act would become conscious and not out of myself. It would either be a very peculiar thing to do—like saying, ‘I shall now be humble’—or it would be simple propaganda…

Propaganda occurs when a writer is directly trying to persuade, and in that sense, propaganda is not bad.. . . But persuasion is not story, and when you try to make a story out of persuasion then you’ve done something wrong to the story. You’ve violated the essence of what a story is.

Is this place a work of “Christian bricklaying”?

Is this place a work of “Christian bricklaying”?

I don’t have the stature of Paterson. I am not one of the great fantasy writers of the world. But that’s not something I worry about. When artists concern themselves with their own greatness, they’re in trouble. I want to focus the energy and time I’m given differently. I want to discover stories that are unfamiliar, that wrestle with questions that are new and challenging for me. I’m focused on developing characters I find interesting, so I can follow them.

And I trust that if I pay attention and work hard, they will lead me to all kinds of truth, all kinds of beauty.

My grandfather didn’t build “Christian houses”—he built spacious, sturdy, wonderful houses worth exploring. In a way, I’m doing my own work inspired by him. My stories are not “Christian stories” any more than my coffee is “Christian coffee,” and my favorite hill climbs of the Pacific Northwest are not “Christian hiking trails.” I don’t want my companions on the journey to think that we’re engaged in some kind of illustrated sermon. We’re on an adventure.

“Ah,” you might say, “but you are a Christian. Your beliefs will affect your story. So your stories will reflect truth differently than secular stories do.”

My answer to that—“No, not necessarily.” In my life of reading, moviegoing, listening to music, and studying visual art, I have encountered truth, beauty, and mystery as much in the work of non-Christians as I have in the work of Christians. I’d even go so far as to say that the truth and beauty I have found in the work of unbelievers has strengthened my faith even more than what I’ve found in “Christian art.” And that’s to be expected. I believe that we are all made in the image of God, and that eternity is written in our hearts . . . in all of our hearts. Thus, when anybody achieves any kind of beauty or truth in their work, that goodness is from God, whether the artist likes it or not.

I want to write stories for the whole world, stories that enchant readers with their beauty, provoke readers with their questions, haunt readers with their mysteries. I want to write stories that inspire readers to investigate important questions, rather than illustrating arguments in hopes that they’ll agree with me.

If my work is categorized as “Christian fantasy,” all kinds of trouble and misunderstanding begins. People begin to assume—wrongly—that they should be looking for religious symbolism and and allegories that I seek to avoid. They write reviews on Amazon that severely misinterpret the stories. (Many of the reviews of The Auralia Thread there, even the positive ones, make me cringe because readers have read them with only one set of lenses—lenses you use when you think that your job is to discern a religious allegory. As a result, they’ve missed out on much of what I believe these stories are about, and they ignore all kinds of details and characters and subplots that are essential to the story.)

Novels by Marilynne Robinson, Leif Enger, Katherine Paterson, Wendell Berry, Madeleine L’Engle, J.K. Rowling, Walter Wangerin Jr., Tim Powers, Gene Wolfe, and J.R.R. Tolkien are shelved in Literature or Fantasy. I’m not saying my work is as accomplished as books by those great writers—Christians, all of them—but if Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast are branded as “Christian fiction,” they’ll remain set apart from the books that inspired them, taken away from the audience for whom I wrote them.

Even if my stories pale by comparison, they were written in the same genre as books by George R. R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Mervyn Peake, and Patricia McKillip (writers whose stories are, by the way, filled with echoes of Christ’s teachings . . . whether they intended that or not).

If you were a winemaker, and you found your bottles shelved with diet soda, or vice versa, you’d be bothered, wouldn’t you? If you made a sports car, and found it advertised as a family SUV, you would suspect—correctly—that its real purpose would never be discovered or acknowledged. Further, it would greatly confuse shoppers who were looking for a family SUV.

If truth and beauty and mystery—those things that make us wonder about God and salvation and the meaning of life—are what make a book “Christian,” than I’d argue that most of the best “Christian books” were not written by Christians, and you can find them all over the bookstore, not just in the “Religion” section. Finding Nemo, WALL-E, and John Carter were all stories written by the same filmmaker—who happens to be a Christian—and all three were full of ideas and themes that Christians will celebrate. But they were not “Christian movies.”

Here’s a passage of Walker’s article that made me cheer:

How do you produce good fantasy (I won’t say great fantasy; that’s beyond my expertise)?

First of all, remember this truth—e-books make it possible to publish your own book. That does not earn you the right to expect anyone else to read it.

Writing is a craft, like shoemaking. I don’t care how sincerely the guy who made my shoes loves shoes. The main thing I want from him is expertise, the practiced knowledge of how to put together a shoe that fits, won’t give me blisters, and lasts a while. Your sincerity may please God, but He also says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (Colossians 3:23, NIV). It’s possible you may be a prodigy, a literary Mozart capable of amazing the world right out of the gate. But probably not.

Amen to that!

That’s why I buy the best shoes I can buy. And I have never, ever, ever shopped for “Christian shoes.”

That is why you should check out Lars Walker’s fantasy novels. They are heavy, challenging fantasy stories that fans of the Inklings—and beyond—will find rewarding.

So again, sure, it’s encouraging that someone familiar with “Christian fantasy”—whatever that is—would say that he likes my work. Especially an accomplished writer like Lars Walker. But to be honest, I’m hoping that somebody somewhere will someday read them the way they read any other fairy tales or fantasy novels, find something that troubles or intrigues or haunts them, and tell their friends, “I just read the strangest fantasy series.” To deliver that—instead of something called “great Christian fiction” (as nice as that might sound)—would feel like a mission accomplished.

Profile photo of Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is a writer of fiction, memoir, reviews, and arts journalism — and a teacher of creative writing, film studies, and cultural engagement for people of faith. Visit LookingCloser.org for more information.


35 Comments

  1. Carrie

    Yes. And Yes.

    What do we do, then, as Christians who steep ourselves in Scripture, when we write fiction, fantasy or otherwise, that seeps Christian thinking from its pores? Even if it is good fantasy, can it (unintentionally) be *too* Christian for a broader audience simply because that is the worldview from which we write? Or are we just too trained in the ways of sighting religious themes that we see them in our own work when others would not?

    I once had a publisher turn down a children’s story because the main character sacrificed everything he was familiar with to bring a message to those who needed it. The comment they made was something along the lines of the act being too much like extremist thinking. I had never considered the idea of self-sacrifice as a negative thing. I hold the idea in high regard in fiction.

    How then, in the contemporary climate, do we write good fiction and good fantasy that is solidly founded in our Christian worldview (but not explicitly “Christian”) and get it shelved with the wine rather than the diet soda? Step one is to write good stories, but then what?

  2. Pete Tegeler

    Now I just want to read a bunch of fantasy. After reading some incredible fantasy, I tried to read the genre more, but I had trouble finding anything that didn’t make me go, “meh.” I’m excited to dig into some of these.

  3. Jaclyn

    Thanks so much, Jeffery. This has been a wrestling point of mine for so long.

    Would anyone be willing to think this through with me? I don’t understand everything this article proposes, and it scares me. I would be incredibly appreciative to hear your thoughts.

    When I was a Writing undergrad, my peers and professors would have conversations that sounded, to me, like this article. The best fantasy pieces were those that were exciting, heart-wrenching and didn’t carry a detectable wiff of “tradition,” which we came to believe were synonymous with cliche.

    We students of this small, Midwestern liberal arts college often detected “Christian” themes in each others’ story plots, language or characters (sacrifice, trinity, good vs. evil, etc.), but we were praised and praised each other when we could subvert those Christian themes and turn them on their heads. Evil actions are elevated as glamorous and beneficial, without true negative consequences. Satan becomes the hero that must defeat the trinity. Things like that.

    Granted, some stories’ details were amped-up in the taboo department for shock value, with the proper order of things retained (I’m thinking of one particular zombie romance, drawn out in gruesome detail. It was hilarious, tragic and beautiful.), but so many of the things we worked on, myself included, simply poked at God and everything He made for the sake of poking, for the sake of asserting that we could write for ourselves a New Way, our own shining Good News out of the darkness of a world that has been threatened with rescue but never really seems to have been saved.

    Simply writing great fantasy is certainly an endeavor I would support, and I don’t think that subverting beauty and Truth is necessarily what Jeffery is talking about when he says he doesn’t want his fantasy labelled “Christian,” (“as nice as that might sound”) or that he’d prefer to be known as author simply of “the strangest fantasy series” instead. What bothers me is the way he dislikes the “Christian” label. The term “Christian” may not always mean much in our world today, but my hope is that it at least hints at an other-worldly system that contradicts and subverts the fallen, dark World system. If people insisted on assigning a sub-genre (as they often do :), I would be pretty happy for such a label, rather than something merely topical like “Science” or “Medieval.”

    Carrie, what you say frightens me even more. If we take the Diet soda vs. wine illustration to its end, then what are we really saying? Lets use grape soda for illustration. Diet grape soda at its core is a mixture of cheap, easily mass-produced ingredients, combined to simulate a beverage that is refreshing and tasty, and if caffeinated, possibly provide a temporary high that mimics real energy produced by nourishment. It probably does not contain any actual grapes. Wine is a beverage drawn from grapes and time, culled from centuries of tradition. They are supposedly both grape, but one drink couldn’t be further from grape.

    If a book labelled “Christian fantasy” is not fantastic enough to even be called fantasy, then I agree, it doesn’t belong alongside a fantastic fantasy. If a drink doesn’t even have grapes, there’s no way it could be wine (and I’m really not interested in it). But what if it IS wine? I don’t think you need to filter out the “Christian” from wine any more than you would need to slap on a “Christian” label to wine made by pagans that is rich and sweet, just as God intended.

    And yet, is there room for Christians, when their wine-making, tent-sewing and story-writing is set down, to at least let everyone know why ugly things are so ugly, and beautiful things are so heart-wrenchingly beautiful? Otherwise, the world and our place in it is utterly terrifying to me– one where we work our crafts in hushed voices, unwilling to hint at the Hope we know, yet indulging in the sights and smells of it all around us.

    Thanks again for reading this and offering any thoughts you have!

  4. Kaitlin

    I have to chime in. I read Through a Screen Darkly last year, and it was probably my favorite new read of the year. Thanks for sharing some more!

    I’ve heard this idea before and agree with it for the most part. I agree with Overstreet that it would be a shame if Christians didn’t write for the general market or if all our works were bundled away in a corner, but it makes me sad that Christian things seem second class here (although I’m not sure Overstreet meant that outright). I think there’s plenty of room for stories – including fantasy – that are Christian and intended for Christians. I also think it’s possible – though difficult – to include one’s faith in a general market fantasy. It isn’t a dichotomy. It just gets difficult when art and evangelism get tangled, and I think that may be what Overstreet is reacting to here.

    Someone once told me that if I believe in God’s presence in my daily life, then he ought to be in my writing as well, and it’s stuck with me – though I’m still trying to sort out exactly how that looks. There isn’t an easy answer to the faith and art balance, but I think much of it has to do with listening to God as we make our art.

    Jaclyn, I wonder if Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking On Water wouldn’t be useful for you if you haven’t read it yet. She has good insight on writing from faith. A rambling read, but worth the effort to keep up with her.

  5. Josh Kemper

    Jaclyn,
    I’m not 100% confident in my understanding here, and I’m definitely not an authority on anything, but I didn’t get the feel that he disliked the Christian label; I felt more that he was pointing out how the label is less apt in some areas than others. A person may be called a Christian (which is a “pagan”-derived label that we adopted, is it not?) but a rock is not Christian, though it may be “charged with grace”. Even if its true that he dislikes the Chistian label, I dont think the motive is to throw out Christ, but to throw out the labeling. Things don’t need to be labeled to be good. We don’t recognize the goodness in something because of labels, but simply because we experience their goodness. I associate labeling with society in a broken world. We like to divide. The word “pagan” has this effect as well. Do we get this kind of language from scripture? In the OT we see an important division between Jews and Gentiles, but we see a major theme emerge in the NT of breaking down those walls. That’s not to say all people are the same in every way – I’m not trying to water down truth. Not everybody believes, and not everyone has the same eternal destiny. But labels aren’t always helpful because they cause people to misunderstand or misjudge.

  6. Danielle

    Jaclyn, I hear what you’re saying. I think the point is that we don’t sit down to write and say to ourselves, “I’m going to write something Christian and edifying.” I wonder if trying to control the direction in that way- using our intellectual minds to steer the story- doesn’t sap the life out of our creative endeavors.

    Rather, we write out of the truth that lives in our hearts, because then we’re telling a story that we truly know, not simply retelling a story that we’ve heard, if that makes sense. So if we’re Christ-followers, and that is what is alive in our hearts, that’s what will come out in our writing, if we’re being true to what we know. We don’t need to bend the story to fit a mold, if that makes sense.

    I think of one of my favorite scenes in Prince Caspian, when Lucy is talking with Aslan, and feeling very ill-used because the hadn’t listened to her, and rather afraid, because Aslan has asked her to go wake the others up and follow him in the middle of the night. In that moment, I think that Lucy feels so true to me, in her fears and frustrations, because Lewis is writing something that is true to him (and to me in our common experience).

    Also, I think there is definitely a place, as mentioned in Jeffery’s essay, for craftsmanship. It’s not enough to simply write some “edifying, Christian” piece and call it a day. It has to be well-crafted. To deserve to stand up against its counterparts without claiming special treatment as a “Christian” work, if that makes sense. (A lot of what is marketed as “Christian” fiction, or music, or art, is so tied up in adhering to the label that it doesn’t consider the quality of the work.)

  7. Bailey

    Jaclyn, thanks for your concerns. I have felt similar thoughts these past two years that I’ve been a student in a creative writing department at my private Christian university. I appreciated your final paragraph the most.

    I’ll just come out and say it: there’s nothing wrong with using Jesus’ name blatantly. (Ok, that came out wrong, lol. I meant nothing wrong with referring to him clearly in a story or script.) His word actually says, “Whoever denies me before men, I will also deny him before my father in heaven” (Matt. 10:33). Now, I believe Jesus was talking about more than just penning his name into a novel; and there’s more complexity involved when we factor in creative writing genres like fantasy, which are essentially steeped in either a pagan or at least a non-explicitly-Christian world. But… I still think if a person has a sensitivity toward a desire to write *explicitly* about Christ, that is perfectly commendable. Not all will.

    What pains me is when people on both sides cast judgment on the other, stating that you cannot be Christian and write a fantasy novel, or that you cannot be an excellent writer and mention Christ– or at least use clear spiritual themes. Both highlight the purposes of Christianity– to (potentially) inform AND transform. 🙂 Does that help?

  8. Kyle Keating

    I think it’s possible to talk about Jesus explicitly and use explicit religious themes well in a novel (see Robinson’s Gilead). So the distinction is not necessarily between explicit or implicit, but rather about the quality of the story. Being explicit isn’t inherently better (or worse); it shouldn’t be used to baptize bad art—but the most important question is the whether the story is well-told, beautiful, and true (someone like George R.R. Martin has plenty of all three of these, other content aside).

  9. James Witmer

    Jacyln,

    Thanks for sharing your college experience. It’s interesting to see how varied our experiences can be.

    I think the demand that “all traditional themes must be subverted” is the small-minded reaction of the unimaginative. But I don’t think that’s at all what Jeffery is referring to, because he and the sources he quotes clearly hold traditionally-themed fantasy as their standard.

    I have a lot of sympathy for your concerns; I’ve spent a lot of time being concerned. But I now tend to agree with Jeffery. The simplest reason:

    When referring to the sub-genere of “Christian Fantasy,” we refer to a much smaller body of work than simply “fantasy.”

    That immediately suggests the ranking of a particular work means less. It’s like saying “the best pizza shop in town,” instead of “among the best pizza shops in the country.” Some people are content to be best in town, and that’s not wrong. But others believe the calling to excellence means reaching for, and measuring against, the larger standard.

    The slightly-more-complicated reason:

    The term “Christian Fantasy” does mean something in our world today. Unfortunately, I think it tends to indicate a rigid, allegory-centric form of writing in which the elements of good storytelling are often forgotten in pursuit of the “message.”

    This means that being among the best “Christian fantasy” writers can be a bit like being “the best seafood restaurant” in a small town in Nebraska. The fish might be the freshest in town, but… well…

    Now, this is a bit unfair. It only happens because most of the greatest Christian writers (Tolkien, Lewis, Rawling, etc) get sprung free of the sub-genere, leaving behind a few hoary-headed greats (MacDonald, Milton, etc) and a host of writers who adhere to the stereotype.

    But that unfairness is partly the point. If a writer wants to be measured against the greatest Christian writers of fantasy, he or she must, ironically, do so outside the sub-genere they inspired.

    I’m not saying it makes sense – only that it seems to be the state of things.* And I’m not saying I would scold someone who called me a Christian writer. Quite the contrary – I would own it proudly and gratefully. But I think my identity as a follower of the Way is different from the artistic preference for being shelved next to George R. R. Martin.

    Hope this helps as you’re thinking?

    *All based on my own observations, with attendant possibilities for error.

  10. Eowyn

    I’m glad there’s been some conversation, and thanks, Jaclyn, for voicing some of my own head-scratchings from last night. Also, I’m glad there are divergent opinions so I won’t have to re-write my book, which is, at times, overtly “Christian.” And has a whole lot of satire in it, which can’t escape having a point. (Dickens satirized things, but also told great stories. He’s still popular after 100+ years, I note.)

    I respect that, as Arsenio Ortez said in a recent WORLD magazine: “Obviousness has its place.” But I have always preferred LOTR to Narnia, that is: indirect messages to direct messages. I somehow feel it’s more “artistic” to be subtle than say exactly what you mean. Maybe it is. But at the same time, shying away from ever speaking things clearly, just for the sake of being cryptic, isn’t any better.

    I remember when I was a kid, loving to discover through little hints that an author was at least friendly to Christianity. There were so few YA novels in “secular” channels that would even engage with deeper themes. (I mention Margaret Peterson Haddix and Patrick Carman.) Andrew Klavan’s Homelander suspense novels don’t suffer from the open Christian themes – they aren’t preachy, like most “Christian” novels, but neither are they going to apologize for the protagonist’s faith. As Bailey said, there’s nothing wrong with actually attaching a name to our morality. At least for teens, I think some blatant Good is Good and Not Maybe is needed.

    As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown to appreciate novels written by non-Christians. Still, sometimes it’s just good to read something that has plain faith in it. I loved A Tale of Two Cities. (I also hated Left Behind, but that was because it was badly written). I enjoy atheist-humanist-whatever Terry Pratchett’s later novels, mainly because he’s an atheist who writes like God exists. They can often provide some pretty solid morality, but others (like Night Watch) questions that I grappled with. I loved Lord of the Flies because it challenged me. I loved Brideshead Revisited because it challenged me.

    Some books exist to ask questions, some to give answers. I don’t necessarily think one is greater than the other, or that they have to be separated into different categories.

  11. Eowyn

    P.S. It occurs to me that the Bible does both as well. It tells stories to be thought about, and plain, straight-forward doctrine to live by.

  12. Sofia

    I honestly don’t have much to add–except an aside. I’ve truly been enjoying reading the discussion that has been taking place in the comments following this article. Thank you, really. This may well be my favorite aspect of the Rabbit Room–that I can read the comments and find earnest, considerate explorations of questions I’ve had while reading articles.

  13. James Witmer

    Eowyn,

    But at the same time, shying away from ever speaking things clearly, just for the sake of being cryptic, isn’t any better.

    True, and well said.

    This reminds me of Orson Scott Card’s work… he’s pretty well established in the larger fantasy genre, and he make room for openly Roman Catholic characters… who are sympathetic and human, not subverted.

  14. Eowyn

    @James Witmer I’ve been meaning to read Orson Scott Card…I’ll have to push him farther up on my To Read list (which, at the moment, has too much P.D. James on it – another subtly Christian writer I love).

    Oh – and I just read the *end* of your post. You’re right…it’s so hard to buck the stereotype that often you have to slip things in quietly. When I recommend music, I *never* tell people it’s Christian, because often you can just see the internal “Oh, boy, it’s the Gaithers” thought running through their head…

    Actual conversation I had:

    Me: “Hey, Stacey. You like Nickel Creek…”

    *interest ignites*

    “…have you heard of Caedmon’s Call?”

    *interest dies*

    Stacey: “They’re, like, Gospel, right?”

    Me: “Uh…no.”

  15. JON SLONE

    Isn’t this why a lot of Christian music is now labeled Alternative?

    It’s because people shut down and close off when they see that Christian label.

    Jesus didn’t wear a sign that said, “The Dude.”

    So in this way, what Overstreet and the like are saying is perfectly okay. Just create the art in whatever form and then slap on the label that reaches the largest audience possible.

    I had one lady approach me and find fault with one of my stories or poems, as if there wasn’t enough Christ in it.

    I told her, more importantly, the author (me) is a Christian. Meaning, if you like my work and it brings you near to me, you’re gonna get an earful of who fuels me and guides me and with whom my talents were loaned to me.

    It’s also related to the scripture where Paul says he has become all things to all people to win more to Christ.

    Like Overstreet said, you can find so much that wasn’t intended to be Christian, that still is, that still communicates to you, that draws you in to God’s love and presence.

    Like:
    A Knight’s Tale
    The Matrix
    Signs
    Stardust
    Toy Story 3

  16. Lisa

    Wow. I am loving this post and the conversation as it is touching on so many of the things I have struggled with in my own writing. I don’t want to write a preachy, Christian-y book. I hope that my characters are real people and not just platforms for me to evangelize through. But what do you do once you are finished writing the thing and than you start to look for publishers, who very much seem to want to pigeonhole manuscripts into CBA-friendly or not? I don’t know that the average CBA reader would be comfortable with my story, but I’m pretty sure the other ones would think it too “religious”. Anyone else have any wisdom on THAT dilemma?

  17. yankeegospelgirl

    Wow Lisa, that is tough. I respect the integrity that’s putting you in that dilemma. I would just say that if it’s incredibly good, I believe someone will eventually take it. Like Billy Joel once said, just be damn good at what you do, and I believe you will get a shot.

    Comparing Lewis and Tolkien is an interesting exercise in this context, because they wrote very differently, yet each was brilliant in his own way. I would say that Lord of the Rings is not explicitly “Christian” fantasy, rather, I would say that it has the flavor of “Christendom” soaked through it. It’s unmistakably rooted in that worldview. Even the nature of the magic is different from today’s fantasy. Gandalf is called a wizard, but he’s more like an angel, a steward, as he refers to himself. There are no unnecessary spells, no magic for the sake of magic. When he uses his power, he uses it to guide and protect, like making his staff glow in the dark. And there are small hints of God, like Gandalf’s saying that Bilbo was “meant” to find the ring.

    Lewis, on the other hand, is specifically recreating biblical stories in his work, and therefore I would argue that something like Narnia could be legitimately called “Christian fantasy.” Do I think it deserves a place among, indeed, above much of what passes for good fantasy today? Absolutely yes. But I don’t have a problem calling it Christian fantasy, because, well, that’s what it is.

    I don’t think we have to fear labels. Tim Hawkins once joked that he didn’t understand the phrase “Christian comedy” because he didn’t know what makes a joke “Christian.” Maybe he was being facetious, but I can point to plenty of examples of comedy that’s specifically to, for and about Christians, including Hawkins’ own. I can even get more specific with examples of Catholic comedy, Calvinist comedy, Southern Baptist comedy, mainstream evangelical comedy, and so on. It’s like using a regional label. We can all agree that there’s something distinctive about New York comedy or British comedy, because it plays on the characteristics and idiosyncrasies of people living in those parts of the world. Similarly, Christian comedy can play on the characteristics and idiosyncrasies of people in the Christian subculture. Nobody who’s not a Christian is going to “get” a satirical blog post about the different kinds of hand raising in church, just like I might not “get” a British joke that someone British would find hilarious. But that’s fine. That’s what gives us variety.

    So I don’t think Hawkins needs to feel embarrassed about being “labeled” as a Christian comedian, because there’s nothing inherently insulting about a label. Similarly, I don’t think Rich Mullins felt insulted by getting “labeled” as a Christian artist. He wanted to be considered a Christian artist. He wrote explicitly Christian music. That’s who he was. For the same reason, Lewis didn’t take offense in his day when people referred to his fantasy as “Christian.” In fact, he would have said, “Good! I wanted it to be.” Of course I’m not saying that should excuse shoddy work. But at the same time, let’s not be snobs about the “Christian” label.

  18. Eowyn

    I’m glad this subject has come up, because it’s one that interests me, and of course, concerns my book. For one thing, if I ever decide to take a shot at publishing, deciding on a publishing company depends on which audience I want to go for. If I tried, say, Thomas Nelson, it would be an unquestionably “Christian” book, even if it wasn’t, you know. If I went for a secular publishing company, I don’t know how much Christ I could get in there.

    @Lisa
    I do think that good writing can possibly transcend the “Christian box”, but it must be very good. It’s like a mislabeled product which everyone shies away from. However, I think if you don’t have people quoting the Bible every five pages, I’d wager you can get away with a lot in secular publishing companies. For instance, a Christian protagonist who occasionally mentions God in a positive light is okay, but (as in my case) an atheist protagonist who comes to faith is a much harder task to make un-preachy. Patrick Carman publishes with Scholastic (I think), but actually is more openly Christian than Tolkien, in one series featuring a God figure called Elyon (which was also a NYT Bestseller). Speaking of Tolkien, he very effectively used symbolism that could be taken several ways – I know of a guy who’s convinced LOTR is an allegory for the free West vs. the encroaching socialism of the East.

    @YankeeGospelGirl
    This is an aside, but I think the flavor of fantasy has changed mainly because of the explosion of LOTR-rip-off books that turned into Dungeons and Dragons. I have friends who, whenever they hear the word “fantasy” they instantly think of the occult.

  19. Lisa

    Eowyn,

    I guess what you are saying is precisely my question: who do I direct the manuscript to? I understand writing for the audience….and that’s my dilemma. I am writing “Christian fantasy”, or at least, a fantasy that definitely has a Christian worldview underpinning it. My gut feeling is that the “traditional” publishers would shy away from it. But I’m not so sure that the Christian ones are going to like it either, for precisely the same reasoning given in our discussions here. Anyhow, I really value all the opinions and info here. I agree that no matter what, the work has to be really good, and I am striving to make it the best I can. First draft is done, but I sure have a lot of work to do yet to get it to the point I would want it to be in order to send it to a publisher. But it seems to be that some of that work will depend on the answer to the question I am asking here (“who is the audience”) if I ever have a hope of publishing it. And there’s the rub!

  20. yankeegospelgirl

    Agreed Eowyn. People don’t realize Tolkien was a one-in-a-million literary genius, so they think that if they just repeat the formula, they can produce great art too. Even the Chronicles of Prydain, which were semi-decent, were a blatant rip-off of Tolkien.

  21. Eowyn

    @Lisa – My dilemma as well. I think ultimately it’s better to angle for the larger audience with the secular publisher. Most middle people (i.e. Christians who don’t like “Christian” fiction) read secular, I think, so that sort of middle ground audience would be more likely to exist there. In the end, you know, atheists don’t read Christian fiction. Christians and non-believers both read secular fiction. From a pure numbers argument, then….

    I think if you want the more overt Christian elements, the best way to sell it to the secular publisher would be to downplay those things, focusing instead on the plot and stuff like that. Anyway, I’m probably not the best person to ask, as I’m unpublished too, but this is just what I plan to do whenever Raven’s Death is (finally) finished. I feel like I can reach more people this way, and I also feel that though my execution is not that of a Tolkien or a Lewis, my themes are something people my age (secular and Christian) desperately need to hear, so a numbers argument holds weight with me.

  22. Lisa

    @Eowyn – Interesting point. It’s sure a challenge, anyways. Honestly the whole thought of writing for a particular audience with hopes of publication seems so antithetical to the idea of “art” that I start to feel like a hustler rather than a writer! But I suppose it can’t be helped….
    I wish you well with your book and will be looking eagerly to hear of it’s publication!

  23. Eowyn

    @Lisa
    Yeah, I know…but hey, spread your bread upon many waters….I don’t see the difference of trying to reach a larger audience for whatever type of music one makes, or for one’s small bakery on Main Street, and finding more readers for one’s books. It’s an interesting topic, anyway.

    @yankeegospelgirl
    Ha ha! Enjoyed that podcast. “Well, God made sex…”

    I wrote a blog post on the subject – though I wish I had time to edit it and add a thousand “Yeah, but…”s

    http://www.longish95.blogspot.com/2013/04/christian-contemporary-music-my-campaign.html

  24. Kaitlin

    @ Lisa
    I understand the feeling. I can get so overwhelmed when I worry if my work will do for this audience or that … but I wonder, isn’t even great art meant to be seen by someone? Even great artists like Michelangelo worked on commission. I guess that’s kind of a comforting thought. I can just see him worrying over whether his latest patron would be pleased.

  25. Lisa

    Kaitlin,

    Good point! Hadn’t thought about that before – you are right, lots of the great artists of the past were working “for” someone. And sometimes, those “someones” did not like the finished product, but in the end, history proved their opinions wrong. Proving the point, I suppose, that we should ultimately be striving to produce the best work that we can, and trusting that our audience will be supportive, but if not, that there will be a wider audience beyond who will appreciate/understand what we have done.

    Interestingly enough, stumbled across this blog post last night. Thought it interesting in the light of our discussions here:

    http://chilawoychik.com/2012/04/23/why-writing-mainstream-or-crossover-books-pegs-you-as-a-serious-writer-while-writing-christian-books-often-doesnt/

    @Eowyn – read your blog post. Totally agree.

  26. Daniel

    Question:Does anyone know a good fantasy novel about characters who actually become Christians within the story?

    For example, since fantasy novels basically create a new or altered world as the context for a story, has anyone ever written a fantasy novel (or series) where someone goes into this fantasy setting and finds Jesus there?

    It would be fascinating to investigate this as it relates to the preceding conversation, because it would not require allegory or any overtly Christian tagging. It could be a compelling and beautifully crafted story on its own, but inside of that framework – a real character (or more) discovers real faith within the framework of real Christianity. I’m sure people would label it Christian, but I’m also sure the author could try really hard not to sound blatantly religious within the writing and marketing grid of the project (maybe “The Shack” is the closest example I can think of here).

    I ask this question because as I read this article and everyone’s thoughts about it, I find myself centering on one simple point: Within the art of storytelling, isn’t the most important thing what happens after someone reads (or views) your work?

    How does your art impact someone’s life for eternity?

    Thanks for any thoughts or leads to my first question.

  27. Eowyn

    @Daniel – I second the question. I’m in the process of writing such a fantasy, and I’m having trouble pulling off a non-clumsy or non-preachy conversion. I’d love to see a successful example of this. (Or any tips would be heartily appreciated from more experienced writers.)

  28. Brave Sir Robin

    I can’t think of any FANTASY examples off the top of my head, except Elizabeth Goudge has a witch convert in _The White Witch_. Also, as a non-fantasy example, I believe there’s a conversion in George Eliot’s _Adam Bede_. Back to Goudge, I believe the dean converts in _The Dean’s Watch_.

    Is Daniel citing “The Shack” as a not blatantly religious work? I would agree that it’s not really demonstrating any one particular religion, but for its own brand of spiritual thinking, whatever you prefer to call it, it’s kind of heavy-handed.

  29. Eowyn

    @Brave Sir Robin – Have to say I haven’t heard of any of those except Adam Bede. Another good non-fantasy conversion would be Brideshead Revisited, which is based (consciously, by Waugh) on that quote from Chesterton: ‘”I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”

    @James – HOW COULD I FORGET EUSTACE???

    “Lay down your layers, shed off your skin
    But without His incision, you can’t enter in
    He cuts deep, yeah He cuts deep
    When the risk is great and the talk is cheap
    But never leaves a wounded one behind.”
    -Kendall Payne, “Aslan”

  30. Books for Boys – A Show and Tell ‹ Story Warren

    […] Auralia’s Colors (series) by Jeffrey Overstreet – We just discovered this series, and my son insisted that it be added to the list. He described the books as a cross between the Susan Cooper and Lloyd Alexander novels. You can read Overstreet’s thought-provoking piece on “Christian” fantasy here. […]

  31. Books for Boys 2.0 ‹ Story Warren

    […] Auralia’s Colors (series) by Jeffrey Overstreet We just discovered this series, and my son insisted that it be added to the list. He described the books as a cross between the Susan Cooper and Lloyd Alexander novels. You can read Overstreet’s thought-provoking piece on “Christian” fantasy here. […]

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