Obscuring the Glory of God in Literature

Venus de Milo. Louvre Museum.
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In my post Creativity for the Fun of It, I maintained that it’s fine for Christians to write and publish works that are just for fun, and that God’s glory shines through such things because God is the creator of everything, not just some limited subset that we define as sacred.

As that post has become one of the more popular ones on this blog over the last few days, I re-read it, and noticed that one might misunderstand. I’m speaking there within the context of literature that doesn’t set out to obscure that glory, or get so far off the track that it accidentally does so.

Let me make some comparisons.

  • The Venus de Milo vs. pictures in Penthouse
  • A movie that contains violent scenes of war as opposed to a horror movie
  • A book with sexual content where it is an important part of the story as opposed to a book of pornography

I’m not here going to condemn whole genres, any more than I’m saying that any literature is OK. I’m generally opposed to arbitrary standards. I would say, “Can you find God in there?”, but some people would then look for the word “God.” Perhaps one should ask whether one can see God reflected there through his creation.

As a very specific case in point, I’d like to mention the novels of Andrew Greeley. If I remember the phrase correctly, Greeley was once described as having “the dirtiest mind ever ordained.” I won’t praise his novels as great literature. He seemed to largely work with one plot. But in each novel you’d see the passion of human sexuality used as a mirror to reflect the passion with which God seeks us. I’m sorry that Greeley is now no longer able to write.


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Creativity for the Fun of It

Through my company Energion Publications I publish a book by Nick May, titled Megabelt. (He has another book on the way, not with Energion, but I’ll provide news of that later.) Now Nick is a Christian young man, deeply involved in his local church. But he can get just a bit challenging to some people’s sensibilities in his writing.

Nick’s mother has struggled with some of the things he writes. She posted about this on her blog the other day. Here’s an extract:

He lives with passion. I admire him for that. He believes with all his heart in writing purely for the sake of aesthetic value, and simple, pure enjoyment of the art, and not necessarily with always Christian content. I had to struggle through this myself, and he has had to struggle too, because he is gutsy, and real and comes under fire for it. I wasn’t sure for a while, where I stood on the issue, because I always believe in glorifying God in whatever we do. Last night, I got a reality check.

Now I’m going to let you go to Hannah May’s blog Grace, Grace to find out about the reality check.

I appreciate Hannah’s writing, because I too have encountered many people who question the idea of literature and art for enjoyment. They want literature that has an explicitly Christian theme or specifically aims at providing a moral or a gospel message. Because of this they’ll challenge the idea of reading fantasy and science fiction, for example.

I, on the other hand, think that this anti-creative attitude, or more precisely restrictive attitude, is what is most limiting to Christianity and Christian thinking.

The entire world belongs to God. God is the creator of everything that is. Some people think we need to stay in some sort of spiritual realm, or in some set of ideas that is bounded by religion. That attitude, in my view tends to deny that other things, such as our love lives, our sexuality, our imaginations, our inventiveness, and our creativity are truly a part of God’s world. Except, of course, for those portions that fall into those artificial religious boundaries.

But even if I am relaxing on my front porch, not thinking religious thoughts at all, and not carrying a John 3:16 sign, I am living in God’s world. Whether an artist is drawing a picture of Jesus at the last supper, an abstract impression of the skyline of a city, or yes, even a study of the human body, that artist can’t help say something about God through that observation of creation.

And whether a writer intends a moral when writing a story or not, there is again a reflection of God’s universe in the writing, and one can hardly prevent the reader from learning. More importantly, one can permit the reader the experience of fun and joy through the reflection.

Whether we eat or drink, and whether we draw, write, or act, God’s glory is going to shine through somewhere, because the whole world, not just defined portions of it, belongs to God.


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Selective Science Fiction Rant

Way of Life Literature has a rant on science fiction that is really quite odd and rather selective.  It appears that science fiction is the product of evolutionary thinking and that most of its key authors were atheists, and of course, evolutionists.

I am both a Christian and a fan of science fiction, having even written just a bit of amateur science fiction on this very blog.  I must also plead guilty to evolutionary thinking, because I think the theory of evolution is good science and provides the best scientific explanation for the diversification of life on earth that we have.  I would also note, however, that evolutionary thinking has been applied in many places where it doesn’t work well, such as in tracing evolution of thought, which has often resulted in very poorly supported dating for Biblical materials.

There is literature that is of value in many genres, I believe, in science fiction just as in others.  As with any literature, if you are going to build your life on it, you may well be led astray.  Authors do–and indeed should–have moral and theological viewpoints which are often reflected in their writing.

The answer is not staying away (though there are some items in literature I would recommend staying away from), but reading with your mind turned on.

Yet Again Literary Standards – or Not

I don’t read Dan Brown, not because I don’t like his writing (which I’ve never read), but because I don’t really enjoy conspiracy theory novels as a rule.  Now there’s a clumsy sentence, such as the author of this article in the Telegraph would dislike.

The examples given are generally not great writing–from my perspective–but many, many people love Dan Brown’s writing and they buy his books.

I must confess that I find it humorous for literary elitists to criticize a book which has such an obvious following on literary grounds.  The problem is that deciding that something is “good” is not purely abstract.  It must be “good” for something in particular.

Thus Dan Brown is “good” in the sense that he entertains his audience and sells his books.  Tolstoy or Shakespeare are “good” in a different sense.  I actually have different standards for different types of reading.  What makes a good book that I read for fascination and intellectual enjoyment will ruin a book that I use for bedtime reading and recreation when I’m tired.

A majority of elitist criticism of literature seems to neglect this point.  They want to have a list of “good” literature and exclude everything else.  I don’t choose my reading that way, nor do most people.  Publishers use different criteria for different literature.

I believe that is as it should be.

On Reading Bad Books – and What They Are

I’m trying to get back to this blog, but paying work continues to intervene, and fiction writing is not paying work for me, nor is reviewing or commenting on fiction. I will get back to posting and even have some plans for some of my material elsewhere.

That said, this morning I found a link from Martin LaBar of Sun and Shield to a post by Elizabeth Moon, Why “bad” books succeed. If I can summarize her post very briefly, I think she is saying that it’s because bad books are not entirely bad.

And I would add that, of course, good books are not entirely good. For example, I read Ms. Moon’s books, and would definitely not call them “bad,” in fact, she is one of those authors I regularly read. Yet I sometimes dislike her battle descriptions and I was not too happy with the ending of Victory Conditions. But to all that I say, who cares? I read the books anyhow, and I like them. Sometimes when you’ve done enough reading you just feel like complaining about something.

To make the same point again, I hate time travel, yet I read everything from the Dragonriders of Pern and other series by Anne McCaffrey that I can get my hands on. Why? Anne McCaffrey is simply in a class by herself as a story teller, and her characters draw you in and make you want to hear more about them.

I think it’s fairly arrogant to tell other people what they ought to like in literature. I’ve been told I should like Dostoyevsky. I can’t stand him. All apologies to advocates of great literature. I’m going to miss that part of it. But are people who like his writing stupid? Do they have bad taste? In my opinion, they simply have tastes that differ from mine. In this case it might be that it is the social commentary and the ideas that drive them.

Speaking of ideas, I like reading parts of Ayn Rand, but things like John Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged just turn me off as part of a novel. When I first read Atlas Shrugged I scanned the speech and then read it later when I was in the mood for some non-fiction.

I wrote on this topic before in Defining Good Literature (Or Not), and the follow-up, So Are There Actually Standards in Literature.

Enjoy. (Or not!)

Anthropologist Studies Gamers

I recall in general terms when I first saw an ad by an auto manufacturer that used a computer theme for selecting the vehicle. I thought at the time that the PC had come of age. A few years before I had been told by a computer dealer that he didn’t advertise on TV because it wasn’t specific enough to the audience he was trying to reach.

During the same period I was involved in playing role-playing games (see the Energion Game, which is largely of historical interest). We occasionally discusses the educational possibilities of role-playing. What I, at least, never thought of, was having an anthropologist study the gamers, and draw thoughts from that study about the value of fear and humiliation as teaching methods.

But anthropologist Alex Golub, who studies World of Warcraft gamers, has done just that, and has written his thoughts up for Inside Higher Ed, under the title Fear and Humiliation as Legitimate Teaching Methods. How the world has changed! Enjoy it! Go read about gaming at Inside Higher Ed.

Learning from Stories

I’m almost afraid to write about how one can learn and teach from stories, because I think a piece of literature requires only one justification–that somebody wants to read it. Come to think of it, it may need only that someone enjoys writing it.

I’m an extreme anti-snob in literature. I enjoy some very light reading and some very heavy reading. I get a kick out of people’s reaction to my reading. One day friends will be turning up their noses at what I’m carrying because they think it’s too intellectual and boring, and the next they’ll be wondering how I can read something so light.

But literature, particularly stories, can be a very powerful teaching tool. Finding stories that are entertaining is great. Finding stories that are challenging is even better. Both challenging and entertaining–that’s truly special.

But how can one use stories in learning? I start, not surprisingly, from Bible stories. The first barrier to be broken in really starting to get full value out of Bible stories is the respect and reverence barrier. In its most extreme form this results in people trying to justify every action taken by Biblical characters not clearly identified as bad guys “because it’s in the Bible.”

Most people have taken a step beyond that. They look for the people who are identified as heroes and then look for the lesson in the story. The hero’s actions are to be emulated; those of the bad guys are to be avoided. Now there is some small value in this process, though it is still pretty limited.

When you really start getting traction out of a story is when you can use it as a way of seeding thinking. What may grow out of that thinking may move far away from the original story, and that is very valuable. Any story, even the most imaginative, is anchored in some limited set of circumstances. You’re not likely to duplicate those circumstances.

This is directly parallel, I think, to the question of whether parents, teachers, and church leaders teach children and young people how to think and make decisions, or teach them what decisions to make. For a limited period of time, teaching the desired result may keep things under control more effectively. But over time, students are bound to exceed the chart of answers that you have provided.

You may have experienced something much like this in computer customer support. You get on the phone with a support technician, and the answer sounds coherent, but has very little relation to the question you asked. Why? The support technician is working from a script, and you’re not on the script. On the other hand when you get a really good technician, you may get some answers from the script when they fit, but then they can adapt to your more specific problem. Which do you want students to turn out to be?

In pursuit of this goal I suggest retelling Bible stories from different viewpoints. In my essay Interpreting Stories, I use the story of Elijah and Ahab and provide an example of telling the story from Ahab’s point of view. What’s the point of this? In this story we have very clear heroes and villains from the writer’s point of view. Elijah is a good guy, Jezebel is really, really evil, and Ahab is vacillating and mostly evil, though not quite irredeemable. So taking Ahab’s point of view leads us away from this simple “who had it right” view and gets us to relax and start looking at what other characters may have been thinking.

You see, Ahab could have presented substantial justification politically for his actions. It’s easy when you have a story with the good guys and bad guys clearly labeled. But if you’re in the story, it’s a little harder.

Let me touch on another story here, Jeremiah in the city of Jerusalem under siege by the Babylonians. Jeremiah is preaching that the people should surrender to the Babylonians. Other people are preaching that they should hold on, because God will not allow his temple to be destroyed. Now in class after class I’ve heard modern Bible students talk about how obvious this whole thing was and exclaim at how stupid Zedekiah was for wanting to lock him up.

But if you instead put yourself into the situation–a city under siege, the enemy surrounding the city, and someone preaching “Surrender!” at the top of his lungs, what would you do? The critical step here is to break out of a simple dichotomy of good guys right, bad guys wrong, and start to think about the situation reflected in the story.

Telling the story from a different viewpoint than the one reflected by the Bible writer doesn’t mean you have to agree with that viewpoint. It simply means that you have to make a serious effort to understand that viewpoint. In addition, you can often learn as much or more from a story in which you disagree with the viewpoint of the writer or of the lead character.

What about stories that aren’t from the Bible? I think it should be obvious that any story that raises any of the desired issues, such as ethics, philosophy, theology, or social policy, for example, can provide a good basis for discussion.

Why use a story? Why not just stick with the facts? For my Bible students I would point out that much of the Bible itself is story. But on a more general note, we need imagination to see the possible results of our “fact based” decisions. Stories can carry things to their logical conclusions, point out situations under which our simple answers might not work. Often a well-written or well-told story will allow people to seriously consider things they might otherwise dismiss. It’s a sort of half-way point between having a concrete example, and having a mere hypothetical example.

As an example, suppose one starts with the conclusion that abortion is wrong under all circumstances. The discussion can start by proposing hypothetical situations. Supposing a woman has been raped? Now there is no issue of her making a bad choice. She is being forced into this pregnancy. Most people who take an absolute view don’t respond to that point. But consider instead starting the discussion by reading a story that effectively presents the horror of the situation of a woman who is pregnant as the result of rape. While this is not the same as confronting the same situation in one’s own life (a loved one, for example), it puts flesh on the dry bones of the hypothetical.

Now there have been two general approaches to using fiction, especially fantasy and science fiction in religious study, at least amongst those who don’t reject it as dangerous. The first is to hunt down specifically Christian themes in the literature. This results in things like discussions of Christian themes in Lord of the Rings. Though this approach doesn’t excite me personally, it is not entirely fruitless.

The second is to use stories as a challenging source of material for discussion, which has been the theme of this little essay. Let me just suggest a couple of stories I’ve read recently that fit closely with serious themes. Since recently I’ve been reading Mike Resnick’s short stories, I’m going to point to a couple of them for specific themes.

The first is Hothouse Flowers [Amazon Kindle edition] which provides an excellent platform for discussing quality of life and end of life issues. This is one of those topics on which people tend to have pat answers. If you are going to be discussing this in a Sunday School class or a seminar in church, which is usually where I would discuss it, you might need something to stretch people’s thinking.

One standard Christian answer is that God decides how long you’re going to live, and we shouldn’t interfere with it. The interesting thing is that people can say this in reference to someone who has tubes all over and is in a coma. Who is interfering with the natural course of life? Is it the person who put the tubes in, or one who takes them out?

Resnick’s story presents us with a situation that has been carried to an extreme, and will set up a discussion of these more subtle issues. It’s an engaging (and disturbing) story as well, which is just that much better. [Apologies to those who would like a summary of short stories. I really don’t like to read reviews that tell me portions of the story so I try to avoid giving away any key points. You’ll just have to read it!]

The second story is Down Memory Lane (at Asimov’s Science Fiction), which deals with sacrifice. It’s an extremely touching story, and yet it raises questions about self-sacrifice, and who we are doing that sacrifice for. I think it will produce less acrimonious discussions than the previous one is likely to, but they can nonetheless be productive.

Finally, let me point out the novel Kirinyaga (also title of a short story [Kindle]), which examines questions of how we adapt to change, and also how we deal with real diversity. (There’s a good review of Kirinyaga here but I must point out that it tells a bit more about the course of the story than I like before I’ve actually read the book.) One thinks of the Amish, for example, who reject modern society. At the same time many believe that they should be required to give their children a modern education so they can live in the modern world. How far would you take non-interference? How easy would it be to interfere? Besides the issue of change, questions on the limits of tolerance and cultural diversity arise. How do you rank the values? Would valuing cultural diversity lead you to permit infanticide?

I doubt you’ll find any takers on infanticide in your Sunday School classes, but if you back off from that position slowly, you can discover just how far you would go.

Those are just three examples from my current reading. There are many more out there.

Prescriptive Grammar

This post uses the phrase “prescriptivist blowhards,” which I wish I had coined, about this prescriptive nonsense, which surely deserved it.

The meanings of words are determined by the way in which they are used.

Syntax is determined by the way people actually write and talk.

Prescriptive grammarians can yell and talk all they want, but it will still work that way, just as it always has. “They,” for example, is a plural pronoun because people used it that way. It can become a singular pronoun in certain circumstances for no better reason than that, surprise, people use it that way.

I do want grammarians and grammar teachers to be a bit conservative about the language. They shouldn’t be early adopters of every new way of expressing a thought. But uptight prescriptions are just silly, and can, nay should be ignored.

(I think much the same way about artistic and literary value.)

So Are There Actually Standards in Literature?

Yesterday I wrote about my preferences in literature, being careful to note how these were my preferences and not some sort of objective standard for what is good and what is bad literature.

Amongst other things I said this:

That means that there’s no objective “good book” and “bad book” for the most part. There are books that will entertain nobody, inform nobody, and challenge nobody. But there are also books that don’t entertain me, but are just the thing for somebody else. . . .

So this morning I’m reading a couple of my favorite blogs, evangelical outpost and Locusts and Honey, and between them I find a set of articles that are trying to argue against my point. They want to say that there are some very objective and important standards.

Now if I were paranoid or megalomaniacal I might think that these posts came as a result of my off the cuff remarks, but being mentally balanced, I’m aware that my remarks had nothing to do with it. I’m used to an occasional exchange from my Threads blog, but never expected to do one from this “fun” blog where I let down my hair. But here goes . . .

Joe Carter in his nifty weekly 33 things post links to this post which claims that changing good creatures into bad fosters bad morals. Here’s the quote:

It’s as if the authors of such fiction want to numb their readers to the idea that real evil exists and is consistently recognizable. If you’re convinced a dragon, or vampire, can only be deemed bad after you’ve gotten to know him, you’re more likely to give all the dragons and vampires a chance to prove their character before making a judgment. Sadly, the time that passes between meeting a new and as yet unjudged dragon/vampire and deciding whether he’s of the good sort, or bad, is a time of extreme vulnerability.

Apparently the author expects people to respond with “lighten up, it’s just a story.” But that isn’t my response. I actually find a good deal of moral good in making the moral character of a creature separate from its form. Having good dragons and bad dragons makes them much like people–form doesn’t determine moral quality. Just because a symbol has been used for something evil doesn’t mean that is the only way it can be used.

Frankly I think that stories that make the assumption that traditional good and evil roles always fit with the expected people teach a very bad lesson. They teach that one can use stereotypes to make moral decisions. Now I don’t mind a few stereotyped stories; just don’t overdo it. But don’t get over the top if I put a nice dragon in a story either.

The other article that related was this one (Locusts and Honey comment here) which I actually could use as exhibit A for elitist views of literature and music.

The key quote comes here:

My relativist undergraduates feel empowered by a leveling theory that puts their favorite rock band on equal footing with Bach and Mozart; but watch how quickly a qualitative hierarchy races back when, in the interests of consistency, you suggest that their favorite band must be no better than the Backstreet Boys (or that their favorite bohemian film is no better than, only different from, Police Academy 5). . . .

And I could simply ask on just what basis you do say that one is objectively better than the other. Philosophers regularly argue that their thoughts are better than those of common people, and of course than those of certain other philosophers. But the question is just how one tells which is which? A popular presentation will have a much greater impact on the public in general. Which is better, an obscure philosophical article that is read by 20 or 30 people or a popular article read, and perhaps understood by millions? Either may be right or wrong. Either may be dangerous or of positive value to society.

My point is that while there are some objective characteristics both of literature and of thought, there are also abundant subjective factors. Elitists like to list boring and obscure literature and call it great. But what made it great, other than that people who write obscure prose happen to agree that it is? In the meantime, millions who just enjoy literature, or film, or other forms of entertainment simply go out and, well, enjoy it.

I’m often in the minority. In this case I’m with the millions.

And if you ask me why my favorite literature is better than your choice, my answer is this: “Because I like it!”

On Harry Potter

I’m not a reader of the Harry Potter series, but I really like this note from Laura of Pursuing Holiness. (I worked together with Laura in forming the Philophronos Blogroll which can be seen on my threads blog. This is my “fun” blog.)

To a large extent I think the difference in people’s reactions to books like these is one of perspective. There’s an old saying: Two men looked out from prison bars, one saw mud, the other saw stars. Similarly with literature you can either see the wonderful themes of the Lord of the Rings, or you can get hung up on the fact that wizards and magic are involved in the story.

There are types of literature and entertainment that we should avoid as Christians. Often, however, we avoid things out of hysteria and ignorance rather than because of considered judgment.