Might Rejected Writers Blame Bad Theology?

One SF reader says unpublished authors should fix their own theology.
| Mar 5, 2013 | 6 comments |

From SF commentator Lex Keating, replying to this column on Feb. 21:

I’ve come across a lot of writers, especially in the spec fic subcategory, who write vivid and beautiful narratives. They’ve imagined a whole world, and made it as realistic and gripping on the page as possible. Which is quite good. Why aren’t they published? Partly because they have ragged, gaping tears in their theology. And rather than address these gaps (either by assessing what it is they do believe or by facing down the spiritual strongholds represented by these holes), these authors attack “the market” or putter over improving their craft. Neither response heals those tears, which seem to dig deeper into the writers’ wounds.

As a reader, what do you think?

If you’re an author, aspiring or otherwise, have you seen any possible evidence of this?

E. Stephen Burnett explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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Fred Warren

I think it’s a ridiculous assertion. Do we want our stories to reflect valid theology and a Christian worldview? Of course. Is there a cause-effect relationship between sound theology and publication (or sales/readership thereafter)? No, and there are a host of counter-examples. The Shack, for instance. Publication and sales are driven by numerous factors intertwined in a complex manner, many of which are decidedly un-spiritual.
Blaming a failure to publish on “spiritual strongholds,” e.g., “the Devil doesn’t want this book published,” “if I had my spiritual house in order I’d get published,” “if I was a better Christian, I’d be published,” “I’ve glommed onto some bad theology and once I root it out I’ll get published,” is just another attempt to fix the broken writing clock by hitting it with the spiritual hammer. Wrong tool for the job, but if it’s the only one you’ve got, it’s tempting to see every problem as a nail.

Lex Keating

Serves me right for attempting brevity…
As a wannabe writer and a discerning reader, I am constantly putting my editor’s cap on when a new idea is presented. Perhaps a story is original and fresh, perhaps it is familiar and flat. Especially in speculative fiction, story-tellers try to come up with something that is both a new perspective and an old truth. That’s a difficult mix, even for successfully published authors. Given that a prospective reader will be looking at the story, not the author, editors and agents are typically looking for a story that speaks for itself. That doesn’t need to be defended by its author or have physical, mental, or theological obstacles explained away. Not because the publishing industry is looking for simple stories, but because it is looking for stories with which readers can easily connect.
So, when you have an author trying very hard to say something, as is often the case in spec fic, all these busy words do nothing to hide fundamental flaws in the building of the story’s “universe.” Especially in spec fic, theology is a part of that universe. Hebrews 6:1-2 addresses what was considered basic, baby theology in the first century church. Some of those topics I’m still trying to wrap my mind around. If I’m trying to tell a faith-oriented fantasy story and I brush over an issue like the occult (magic), a flood-free world (with or without weather), the Holy Spirit (“God only talks to my main character”), or miracles (without witnesses) without fully addressing the Scriptures, I sincerely hope the writers and readers in my life call me on that. Not all authors are willing to submit their stories to that standard. Some get around that standard by self-publishing, some by polishing the same story without addressing any possible dross, and some do, quite literally, sit in the dark of The Last Battle‘s stable, complaining about their bonds with other dwarves. Here’s to hoping they listen when invited to run with kings.

Fred Warren

Aaaand, I knew I was going to regret using the “R” word. There’s been a rash of disordered thought lately making the rounds of some of these boards with respect to Christian fiction, and I jumped to the wrong conclusion, gracelessly. Apologies, Lex, and thanks for providing some more context for your remark. I think we’re in violent agreement about the need to have our theology squared away. It’s not an inside track to getting published, but it certainly does help us write with integrity and avoid distorting truth or misrepresenting God’s character in our stories.
I don’t know that speculative fiction should be held to a higher standard in this regard–truth is truth, whether you’re writing prairie romances or science fiction. Spec fic does tend to tread on more peoples’ toes because it asks uncomfortable questions and ventures into places we may have been taught to avoid–imaginary worlds, controversies between science and faith, and even obscure areas in Scripture where there may be conflicting interpretations among believers (pre-Flood society, angels, eschatology, etc). It’s also easy to get into trouble by veering from speculation into prediction.
So, no matter how orthodox your theology, someone in the audience can and will find something objectionable, troubling, or heretical about almost any story you write, and even the publishers can’t agree on where to draw certain lines to avoid offense. We do our best and trust the Holy Spirit to make up what’s lacking.

Lex Keating

That’s quite all right. If I ever become part of a rash of disordered thought, you are more than welcome to call me on it.

I think, and I have been known to be wrong on occasion, that speculative fiction is held to a higher degree of transparency. Any struggles the author has in his/her private life is more likely to come roaring out of the shadows in speculative fiction. These are easier to mask in other genres, because the storyteller doesn’t have to examine every facet of the story’s universe. But in fantasy, scifi, alternate history, you name it–the least little detail can expose parts of an author’s faith thinner than the paper in your e-library. For writers, I do think God does this on purpose. He wants us to examine those thin spots, and face some new conclusions with Him. It certainly makes the writing stronger, but more importantly it makes the author’s shield of faith a little more durable. For both readers and writers, this new landscape always provides a new opportunity to walk wherever God leads. 🙂

Fred Warren

Any struggles the author has in his/her private life is more likely to come roaring out of the shadows in speculative fiction.

I don’t see this so much as a problem. The struggles and conflict are a big part of what makes a story interesting.  Characters with all their ducks in a row don’t reflect real life in this or any universe. I think most writers draw from their own life experiences to help forge an emotional connection with readers that is credible and genuine. Like any artistic endeavor, it does make you somewhat vulnerable and may put some of your faults on public display. You knew the job was dangerous when you took it. 🙂 Taking this too far and falling into a “Mary Sue” style with autobiographical characters and events is simply bad writing.
If the writer is reflecting his/her own wrestling with a controversial theological topic or some challenge they’ve encountered in their walk with God, that’s honest, as opposed to cheerleading a false doctrine or simply being sloppy. We don’t want to distort the truth, but being too scrupulous about doctrinal correctness can be paralyzing. Life is messy, and our faith is constantly being challenged and refined. We experience times of uncertainty and confusion. I think it would be wrong to gloss over that in our writing to avoid offense or potential questioning of our Christian credentials.

These are easier to mask in other genres, because the storyteller doesn’t have to examine every facet of the story’s universe.

Because literary/contemporary fiction deals with real-world characters and situations, I think it can make writing autobiographically even more obvious (“Hey, didn’t he go through a church split just like the one in this story?”), and while some spec fic writers engage in painstaking world-building, it’s not always necessary or even desirable, particularly in forms less than novel-length.

For writers, I do think God does this on purpose. He wants us to examine those thin spots, and face some new conclusions with Him.

I agree. We want God to speak to others through our writing, but He speaks as much or more to us in the process of writing.

Lex Keating

Isn’t violent agreement fun? 🙂 I mentioned in the original commentiness that I didn’t want to name any specific unpublished authors. As such, please excuse me as I go around my elbow to get to my ear again…
I occasionally teach a writing workshop on creating realistic dialogue. In the list of do’s and don’t’s–fun stuff like when to head hop and when to mind your POV’s–there is one major caveat that only applies to Christian writers: The Voice of God. This doesn’t apply to secular writers, because they can do whatever they like with a pagan god. Many of your readers already know what He sounds like, either from their personal prayer lives or from Scripture. And anyone who likes can go check the Word and see if you’re consistent.
“Faking” the voice of God does terribly flat things to your dialogue (never mind plot, characters, or faith). Aside from relying on Scripture or quoting from personal experience, there is an easy rule of thumb that can give a writer a good handle on the voice of God. Write Him as mysterious, NOT cryptic. Cryptic implies something hidden, and any supernatural revelations that hide information are contrary to James 1:17. Mysterious, as Paul suggests in Ephesians and I think Corinthians (?), applies to the exposing or revealing of something unknown. One keeps secrets from the followers, one unfolds knowledge in pieces that the follower can understand. Any time the voice of God is written as cryptic, it flashes warning signs to a believer that something is wrong. The reader may not immediately identify what disturbs them, or ever be able to put a finger on the problem, but this error produces a strong reaction in believers.
The writers in my classes are not required to go over their works with a fine-toothed comb and obey my every dictate. But this point in the workshop always hits home, because the writers are faced with a choice. They can choose to make sure their “voices of God” reflect His open invitation and deep wisdom, or they can choose to write their “voices of God” as hidden half-truths and calculated misdirection. I’ve read before and after works of most of these writers. Regardless of who implements my teaching and who chooses otherwise, this use of “the voice of God” profoundly affects whether spiritual issues are dealt with as weaknesses that need God or strongholds that no one touches.
This rule of thumb isn’t a litmus test I use on everything I read, but it is useful when unresolved spiritual issues crop up. I don’t mean struggles a writer is working through using plot and paper, I mean personal beliefs that the writer does not realize or acknowledge as affecting the story. (A wonderfully holy missionary I know once confessed that, after 40 years on the mission field, God had to convict him of his pride in being an Englishman. It never occurred to this missionary that his national pride was wrong, but God wanted him to have a heavenly nationality, and there’s no room for anglophiles there.) Do we all fall short of the glory of God? Rom. 3:23 says Yes. Does that excuse us from putting off the old man and putting on the new? Col. 3:9-10 says No.
Writers can lie to themselves just as badly as any other sinners. Thank goodness we’re forgiven and redeemed. If we’re going to claim to write for God’s glory, He isn’t going to let us do that alone.