Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Boo-Boo...That Keeps On Giving

I had a "hot button" pushed this week, one that's nagged at me for a long time and one that seems to be without convincing reason or answer. That "button" is the phenomenon in Christian fiction that requires a conversion not only of character, but of life's calling. Of work. Of job.

In other words...

I really, really, really (as in REALLY!)  wish that just once, I could find a Christian novel in which characters don't automatically abandon the occupation they had before they got saved, just because it may be a career that they--or conventional wisdom--might see as somehow less than "Christian." Why is it such a foregone conclusion that "of course" they'll turn their backs on what's been their livelihood up to that point? What would be so wrong with staying put?

I'm thinking of two particular books at this point. The first one is Boo by Rene Gutteridge. A sweet book. A quirky book, one that has a uniqueness to it that prompted me to read it and the second book in this series centered in Skary, Indiana.

The second book, I will not name here for the simple reason that I have not read the whole thing, only a sample--and it's probably not fair to cite chapter and verse on a book that lost me at Chapter One.  But, it also must be said, this particular hot button is the reason it's done so.

In the case of Boo, the hero is a horror writer before he is led to Christ. (Think Stephen King. I did, probably a deliberate intention by the author.) Only unlike King, our hero Wolfe Boone--nicknamed "Boo" for short, hence the title--gets converted and decides, well, that means he's no longer going to be a horror writer. It seems to him to be somehow incompatible with his newfound faith. Trouble is, I never quite understand or believe the reasons why. 

Oh, it's not that it's not explained, in a sort of surface manner. After all, the first knee-jerk reaction of most people to horror is that it's a pretty godless medium that godly people feel a wholesome repugnance toward in the first place, and certainly have no business writing. It tends to be affiliated with such ungodly things as vampires and werewolves and zombies and serial slashers and psychopaths and...

But notice the word.  "Affiliated." Containing these elements, much of the time. But are those elements its substance, a substance from which one needs to be walled off the moment one knows Christ?

I would submit that that assumption is not only wrong but a cop-out.

It has long been maintained by horror writers and critics that horror stories are not heartless, godless pieces set up just to show unspeakable things, scare the bejabbers out of you, and make you sleep with the lights on. Those things often happen, don't get me wrong. :-) But that's not the purpose nor the underlying story of most horror literature.  I don't remember where I read this thumbnail analysis, or I'd give its author credit--but if I remember correctly, that author maintained that horror goes deeper than surface gore or creeps. In many cases, horror literature can almost be considered as modern morality play. I.E., if "I know what you did last summer," and it was a WRONG, and I'm coming back to make you pay for'd be hard put to call it much else than "morality play." The fact that the characters who did the wrong have to fight off someone who's more purely evil than they are (!) in order to survive long enough to own up to what they did is where the struggle, the conflict, and the scary parts come in.

Or, in the case of much horror literature, the setup is that an unspeakable evil comes into the world of a person who's basically just living his or her life, perfectly innocent of any previous offense that needs "punishing." When the unspeakable evil enters, it immediately threatens not only that person, but everything he/she holds dear and sacred. The only way out of the evil is through it--and this person discovers strength he or she never knew s/he possessed in the process of fighting that evil and vanquishing it.

True horror fans will also go one step farther and tell us--much as true suspense/thriller fans attest--that the scariest things happening aren't what's on the page or the screen...but what's between the reader's or viewer's ears. That the power of this fiction isn't in the gore or the body count, but in the emotional identification we have with this poor person and his/her struggles against evil. We want them to win. We want them to reassure us that, in fact, there is order in the universe. That fighting evil can be successful.

As we watch, we see characters have to own up to the shadows in themselves. They have to confront things they'd rather have kept hidden, but saving lives depends on those things being brought out and dealt with. We feel their pain, their shock and revulsion, and we let them battle that shock and revulsion that resonates inside our own heads as we watch or read. When finally the happy ending comes, peace and normalcy return to their worlds--peace of mind, soul, and body. In other words, a defeat of a certain, defined  evil...and a redemption.

So do tell me...what's GODLESS about that? 
Go ahead. Think about it. I'll wait.

I personally think the Boo books would have been better had Boo decided, "Nope, God gave me this talent, and I'm gonna keep using it." After all...if all we have comes from God, the talent to write modern-day morality plays surely shouldn't be one exception to the rule. (Plus, it would have taken the smug Ainsley down a peg if she was actually forced to reconcile the dichotomy between finding herself loving the man and loving the Christian versus wishing he did anything else for a living. Now, there's romantic conflict. And boy, would that have been fun to watch!)

Instead, predictably, our hero dumps his "distasteful" career...and then wonders what's going to come next for him. Enter a whole lot of other manufactured conflicts driven by external factors--which made for an interesting book, and one that wasn't bad. But the whole time I read it, I kept wishing the author had been willing to step out on the riskier ledge. 

Instead, the book, and so many more like it, perpetuate an occupational Phariseeism that begins to split hairs with a certain insane predictability.

You may be a musician...but by golly, you can't play rock and roll anymore.
You may be an actor or actress...but you're now only going to act in religious drama.
You may be a painter...but from now on, your first priority is church murals.
And heaven help you if you're in any of those occupations and you dare to still have some bad habits, or drink or smoke or gamble or play cards or...

Uh-yup. This is the same song we've sung before, and its notes are just as sour.

Isn't it about time we wrote real people, allowed them to have real jobs in which they stood as real Christian witnesses--living in the world as it is--and stopped removing and isolating  them before they even have a chance to be salt and light? Unless your character was something like an abortionist, a sex, slave, or drug trafficker, or a hit man for the Mafia...there's nothing whatsoever laudatory about snatching him from his old job and forcing him to do a new one the the moment he knows Christ.

And let's face it: most people can't do that in real life. So isn't doing that with a character a disservice to your reader? Which is easier to identify with--a character who finds Christ and seemingly loses all other direction (while waiting around passively for "God to show him the next step"), or a person who sticks around in the effort to do the best he can, in the place he's been planted, sin-laden world and all?

I know which person I'd rather read about.
I know which person I meet more often in real life.
And I know which person's testimony has much more power in the end.

It's the guy or girl who faces the evil, who has to force him or herself to walk through it, who has to draw on strength and courage he or she doesn't know exists...

Yanno, just like the hero or heroine in that horror novel.


So don't strip the world of its salt and light by snatching your characters out of it.
Don't keep them safe.
Put them out there, like you have to be every day.

Don't worry. They've got Christ. They can handle it.
And so--images of fainting church ladies aside--can your reader.

Trust a little more, and tear down a few more of the walls.
You'll be amazed what happens. To your stories...and maybe even to your life.



Patty said...

Wow, powerful post! I couldn't agree more. My biggest pet peeves are "too sweet" characters in Christian novels. They don't get angry. They quote scripture at each other. They passively wait for God to show them the light when people are actively trying to hurt them. They just aren't real, and I stop reading about three pages in. Why can't we show an honest Christian experience? It's not always pretty. We don't turn doe-eyed, and we make mistakes. It's the relationship with God, not the sudden loss of all gumption, that defines a Christian.

Deb said...

Now, see, I read the entire book of which you only read the first chapter, and for me, as a whole, it worked. Yeah, the male lead made some weird, immature choices in the beginning of the book. Do we all start out as mature, thinking Christians, or do we sometimes fire off half-cocked due to prejudices and assumptions about "that's just the way Christians ARE."?

That character, IMO, showed about the level of maturity in Christ that any week-old believer would have. Give the story a chance. It gets better.

And I'm with you, Patty. I don't like 'em to be sweetened whipped cream either. I like onions. Peel off a layer here and a layer there, and what you get is an honest portrayal of a believer struggling against everything that comes against the Abundant Life.

I wallbang these passive-character books, too.