Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Cyndere's Midnight 3: Weak Points

So what are the weak points of Jeffrey Overstreet’s Cyndere's Midnight?

In terms of weak points specific to the book, nothing much. As in Auralia's Colors, there is the annoying fact that the mysterious Keeper is described in divine terms without being God. (Some claimed that I was looking for an Aslan figure in the earlier story, but that's ridiculous: my stories never feature Aslan figures, and I don't expect them elsewhere. It's only when a description leaves me no alternative that I decide an Aslan is present.)

On the other hand, there is a feature I'm seeing in a lot of "Christian" writing these days, and it troubles me. No, make that two features.

The first is the "wink-wink, nudge-nudge" factor. If I knew nothing whatever about the writer, I would conclude from the story that he was probably a vaguely religious person acquainted with both the fuzzier forms of Christianity and some kind of New Age teaching. Unfortunately, this is something I see quite often, and usually in writers with above-average gifts. They're so determined (or more bluntly "hell-bent") that they are going to be different. Today's Amazing Free Clue: if you want to be different, wear your pants/dress on your head. But if you want to be a Christian and really follow God, you'll be different, counter-cultural, and transgressive without changing your personal dress code.

For the curious thing about these individualists is how indistinguishable they are from one another. C. S. Lewis said that good, as it matures, becomes ever more distinct not only from evil but also from other good. Why isn't that happening here? For that matter, why do such writers look rather secular? If their writing reflects a greater maturity, shouldn't their faith be all the more obvious?

Scripture check:

Luke 8:16 No one lights a lamp and hides it in a jar or puts it under a bed. Instead, he puts it on a stand, so that those who come in can see the light.

Matt 12:34b For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.

Acts 4:18-20 Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, "Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard."

If Christ is your center, how can you hide that? How can you help but talk about him? The One who fills your heart will overflow into your writing--and not like a lamp hidden in a jar or under a bed, with an ambiguous glow from an uncertain source.

Whenever I bring this up, someone will always claim that it would mean that all writing would turn into cheesy tracts. No. That's where giftedness comes in. If you're a hack, whatever you write will be bad. But if you truly are a gifted writer, you can turn out beautiful fiction to the glory of God without a bunch of self-indulgent gimmicks. God is the source of your gift and creativity. If you turn your gift to his glory, how can that lead to ungifted, uncreative work?

Some say that they have to camouflage their intentions to be read. But God can turn people in the way he would have them go. Honor him, and he will honor you. Don't underestimate the power of the Story: for the Gospel, however expressed, is the eternal story, the one thought up by God himself. It's better than any story you will ever imagine. It's the only one that will matter a thousand or million years hence, the light that reduces all other stories to either submissive reflections or rebellious shadows.

The second feature is secularism. This is related to the first. If you won't submit your imagination to God, you will inevitably conform to the world. That's why these stories are so reliably secular and politically correct. It's also why they can be mistaken for the work of the unsaved. Look at the moral lessons here: putting your own wishes first can hurt others and ultimately you as well. Specifically Christian? No. Specifically religious? No. Specifically warm-fuzzy "inspirational," even if you're an atheist? Sure, close enough.

Okay, how about "organized religions and people who act on religious convictions are dangerous"? Take a guess. Ryllion is actually pretty evangelistic about his views. Cyndere despises religion (Yay!!), and Jordam has no religious/spiritual concepts to speak of. Sound familiar? If you partake of modern secular fiction, it should. And although it's true that some organized religions and their adherents are dangerous, in a time when CNN and other media outlets are equating "fundamentalist" Muslims with fundamentalist Christians, this is ill considered at best.

Well then, how about "art can have a religious function by empowering people to escape from their own ickiness without any external savior"? (Yes, I know: Auralia's work derives from a divine gift, so it is divinely empowered even if the deity in question remains anonymous.) This idea has been around for quite some time: there is something (Art, Knowledge, Altruism, Love--romantic, maternal, or platonic) that is noble and salvific by itself. Nonsense. Fallen world, fallen species, and everything on the list is tainted as well. Lewis again: the higher something is initially, the worse it becomes when it goes wrong.

Can God use Art to draw someone? (Okay, cheesy pun. It was getting too serious.) Of course. But God seldom uses just one thing, lest we mistake a path for the path--or worse yet, for the destination. Something will work once or twice, then totally fail. It helps us seek the treasure rather than the jar of clay. If God were using Art here, he would do so for a few people--and even then only a few times. Then it would utterly fail and so keep them from idolatry.

Conclusion. So, then: "Bad book! Bad book! Swat it with a newspaper!"? No. There are flaws, but the gift is there. If you're a writer, there's a lot to learn from, even if some of it is of a cautionary nature. And it is in general a good story, though I think it could easily have been better. Read it. Just keep your eyes open and ask questions the whole time. It's not a just-for-fun read; very little is these days. Books are battlefields too. Stay sharp and check for mines.

Try the probably less incendiary posts of other CSFF bloggers:
Brandon Barr
Keanan Brand
Rachel Briard
Melissa Carswell
Valerie Comer
Amy Cruson
CSFF Blog Tour
Stacey Dale
D. G. D. Davidson
Shane Deal
Jeff Draper
April Erwin
Karina Fabian
Andrea Graham
Todd Michael Greene
Katie Hart
Timothy Hicks
Jason Isbell
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Eve Nielsen
Wade Ogletree
John W. Otte
John Ottinger
Crista Richey
Alice M. Roelke
Chawna Schroeder
James Somers
Rachel Starr Thomson
Robert Treskillard
Steve Trower
Speculative Faith
Fred Warren
Jill Williamson



Excellent points.

A few friends -- writers -- are agnostics or atheists, and they have been concerned (scared?) that my fantasy tales are "too Christian", because God is a definite part of the story, and He interacts directly with characters, on occasion.

I offered to read my friends' complete works and give an honest critique, and they could read my stuff and tell me if it was preachy. So far, no takers.

There's a difference between preaching a sermon and telling a story, but a good story well told can be like a godly life well lived: It tells a story the world will want to read.

With your permission, I'd like to keep a copy of your post to share with the Christians in my writers group.

Steve said...

Permission granted, though since it's a public blog, I'd feel silly saying no.

I often refer to "Literary Lifestyle Evangelism" as an alternative to sermonizing: let your characters live the life, and the Holy Spirit will do the rest.

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

I wrote a long comment, then decided to turn it into my blog post for the day, Steve. Thanks for some thought-provoking views.


Jessica Thomas said...

I just popped over from Becky's blog. This is a great post!

Robert Treskillard said...


I see where you are coming from with this, but I feel like this is a bit unfair.

1) Your comparison of Cyndere and Ryllion. Ryllion's story we know, and we can see clearly he is "religious" and deceived. I think our modern American culture is also "religious" and deceived.

Cyndere, on the other hand, doesn't believe in the Moon Spirits (non-religious), but then again, she's been given nothing else to believe in. Sounds also like many modern Americans.

But her story isn't *done* yet. At the end of this book, she calls out to "whomever" will help her, she is seeking the truth and who she can trust in. And just because we don't see her convert in book 2 to "proper religion" (even in terms of the Expanse), we need to wait until the entire series is finished before we jump to judgment.

2) Your reference to C.S. Lewis brings up an excellent point, but you are forgetting about the example of Tolkien. I think the two of them gave us different examples, one who's work "rings true and shows a clear morality" yet does not include direct or clear references to God (Tolkien), and one who was much more clear about his Christian themes (Lewis). Both of their works show a Christian foundation, and I think Overstreet is following the Tolkien route. Are you saying Tokein was immature in his faith? Are you applying the same attacks to him? He was the one that led Lewis to faith.

3) I feel like you're caricaturing Jeffrey Overstreet. To quote you: "hell bent ... to be different", an "individualist ... indistinguishable from others", unobvious faith in writing = immaturity, "camouflage [his] intentions", and "won't submit [his] imagination to God".

Now, its possible you were just railing against generic positions and not intending these things to be directed specifically at Mr. Overstreet, but it seems to me that this is directed at him.

And I bet it would hurt if he read it, and I think its unfair. How do you know his motivations? How do you know how he lives his life? How he witnesses? How his books will end? Just because his writing isn't "obvious" (yet?) doesn't mean he is anything like your caricatures.

Also, I don't want to be unfair to you, because you may not have meant this as personal to him.


Robert Treskillard said...

Oh, take a look at the interview that Shane Deal did with Jeffrey Overstreet. I think there's some things he says there that pertain to this discussion.


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