Friday, February 20, 2009

Cyndere's Midnight 5: A Response to some responses, part two

This time I'll be looking at a comment from Robert Treskillard. It's a long comment, so I'll try to keep my responses short.

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.

Both points are true, but there is a true faith in America as well. There is apparently none in the Expanse. Where is God? He isn't the Keeper, which is interesting because the Keeper must be God and yet is specifically said by the author not to be God. (Look at how the Keeper is described. I may go into this later, but the identification is unavoidable yet avoided.) So if Cyndere is given nothing to believe in, that's Overstreet's fault or God's. Flip a coin.

Even biblical pagans apparently were able to know God: Melchizedek lived in a pagan area and described God in pagan terms, yet he evidently knew God. Balaam was in a similar position, though he didn't make good use of the knowledge. I suspect Job is another example. So why doesn't even Scharr Ben Fray seem to know God even in an Old Testament fashion? I see morality (a little, anyhow) and ethics (lots of that), but no God. Why?

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.

There is no "proper religion" in terms of the Expanse, unless you mean "knowing the Keeper," which doesn't work because the Keeper isn't God.

I did feel a brief uptick when Cyndere cries out for help, but the larger context argues against it. Since the general feel of the stories allows only a nebulous supernatural entity, I can't help finding a mere sop here. You say the story isn't done yet. True. But remember what Peter and John said: do you honestly believe that they could get through two books--700 pages or more--without a fairly solid reference to what they could not help talking about?

Nor do I see any hope of a change in the third book. The logic of the details given in the story thus far absolutely require that the Keeper in some sense be God--or else the Devil. There is no logical alternative. Yet Overstreet rejects the God option, and the Devil option would be nearly impossible at this point as well. This is why I can confidently "jump to judgment": there is a contradiction here that cannot be resolved unless the author retracts his expressed intention, which I don't see happening.

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.

This is complex for the following reasons:

1. It's untrue. Seriously, while there is no Evangelical Protestant message to speak of in Tolkien, that's because he was Catholic. No religion? Nonsense. What about the prayers and hymns to Elbereth, who I think must be seen as a Mary figure? If Overstreet had even that, I wouldn't be so bothered, despite my misgivings concerning overemphasis on Mary. But there is a "true faith" in Middle Earth, and a God who can be known, if only mediately. Where is that in Overstreet's work?

2. It's irrelevant. You're making a few invalid assumptions here. First, maturity and immaturity have nothing whatever to do with being used to lead someone to God. I've heard of people who have come to God through Jesus Christ, Superstar, which specifically claims that Jesus did not rise from the dead. If God can use something blasphemous to reach people, immaturity will prove no obstacle.

Second, you're assuming that Tolkien's and Lewis' works are equivalent. I see no evidence of that. While Tolkien's work is magisterial from a scholarly and literary standpoint, I find no reason to suppose that it is of particular spiritual or eternal merit. I suspect that from God's standpoint, Lewis is by far the more important writer. It's easy to find people who have been drawn to God through Lewis' work, rather harder to find such witnesses for Tolkien. (I don't say they don't exist; by my previous point I would expect them to. But in terms of overall spiritual impact, I would be astonished if Tolkien was anywhere close to Lewis.)

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.

Maybe it will help if I requote myself, adding the magic ingredient "context":

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.

For the curious thing about these *individualists* is how indistinguishable *they* are from one another.

*Some* say that *they* have to camouflage *their* intentions to be read.

If *you* won't submit *your* imagination to God, *you* will inevitably conform to the world. [I'll grant that the immediate context here is ambiguous: I refer to "stories," which could technically be either Overstreet's or those of the group I was already describing. The overall context favors the latter.]

If I were a bit more paranoid, I might imagine that you changed the plurals (indicating a group--I've never accused Overstreet of Multiple Personality Disorder) to singular in an attempt to caricature me.

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.

I'm talking very little about his motivations, life, witnessing, or ultimate plot resolutions. I'm talking about the available data. I do find it curious that you keep referring to the idea that some blinding flash of faith will yet illumine the Expanse. Perhaps so. But it's rather like holding out hope for a deathbed conversion: such things do happen, but in general there is a kind of momentum that leads those who have spent their lives rejecting God to keep doing so even in the shadow of the grave.

This is not so desperate a case, of course, but that momentum exists in stories as well. After a while, the writer is pretty much committed to maintain the established course. It's rather like Waiting for Godot, except that there it would be less surprising if Godot did turn up at the last minute. At least we've heard enough about him.

Will this hurt Overstreet's feelings? I actually hope not. He is, as I have said, a writer of unusual talent. I have read some of his non-fiction and found an inexplicable gulf between it and his fiction. I suppose it's really that which troubles me: if his non-fiction were as secular as his fiction, I would reach a different conclusion. But it isn't: and a paradox or contradiction results. Overstreet really doesn't belong in the group with which he now keeps company; may he leave it. But in the meantime it is reasonable to warn readers of the association.


Robert Treskillard said...


Thanks for taking a lot of time to think through my comment. I appreciate it, and I also appreciate the fact that you are working through the implications from what you see in the text of Jeffrey Overstreets books.

Here's my responses:

A) I feel like you are setting up a false dualism: That the Keeper *must* be God or the Devil.

What about the Keeper being a servant of God? A type of Angel/Seraphim?

You say 'here is no "proper religion" in terms of the Expanse', but I don't think that's true. Maybe the key word here is "religion".

In fantasy stories by Christians I don't look for an organized religion that someone has to be part of, but rather I look for a clear-cut "good side" and a "bad side". A Christian author who does this will also, as an outflow of their life seeking God, fill in the details with themes of truth.

And our reading and recommendation standards are probably different here, and that is what is at the root of our disagreement.

In Overstreet's books, there is definitely a "correct side" and a "wrong side". Cyndere is learning to choose the good side, and will have to fight great and insidious evil in the coming two books. I see no moral ambiguity here, no slippery slope---only a knife edge of good vs. bad.

You say you can confidently jump to judgment, and maybe you can by your standards. For me, I will wait and see.

B) When you speak of Tolkien, I think you are interpreting the LOTR with reference to the Silmarillion and other works.

Without the Silmarillion, I don't think there is any direct mention of Illuvater in the LOTR. Readers had to wait a long time for that information, and I'm glad it came out, because it *did* influence me toward believing in God.

I read the LOTR and later the Silmarillion as a non-Christian, and I remember being quite surprised about Illuvater. There was an all-powerful God, much like the God of the Bible behind the LOTR? Wow. Within six months I accepted Christ into my life. I can't see a "direct line of connection" there, but I know God was working in my life through many small things, and I don't discount it.

Beyond that, I agree with you that Lewis is more obvious in his writings. But I don't sit in judgment over Tolkien because of that. He is someone else's servant.

C) Yes, I must admit that I took out the plurals. But I did so because I felt like you were hiding behind them.

Step 1) First associate someone with a group.
Step 2) Attack the group.
Step 3) Say you weren't attacking the person.

This may not have been your intent, but since the primary individual you were writing about was Jeffrey Overstreet, it was easy to feel that way.

If I accused you falsely, I'm sorry. I did try to allow you the benefit of the doubt while still calling you to clarify. I think I was too harsh though, myself, and I apologize for that.

D) Thanks for the more gentle words of encouragement for Jeffrey at the end of your post.

E) Also, know that I think you are calling writers to a good standard. I think books written to the standard you set forth are excellent (assuming the writing is on par), and I personally am trying with all my strength to live up to that standard in my own writing.

The difference is that I allow for more freedom, within limits of course, for Christian authors.

Thanks Steve. If you have anything more to say, I'd like to read it and continue to be sharpened.


Steve said...

I'm sorry about the delay in publishing your comment; Fridays and weekends are usually hectic for me. I'll get to the problem of the Keeper tomorrow, I hope.

My remark about "proper religion" alludes to the fact that no one seems to know God. They may know the Keeper, but if it isn't God, that doesn't count. If God exists in the Expanse, why doesn't someone know him?

In Middle Earth, by contrast, there is a true religion, and the hymns and prayers to Elbereth are mentioned in LotR. (Does "A Elbereth Gilthoniel" ring a bell?) There is a knowable God in Middle Earth, even if the details don't emerge until later.

One of the things that troubles me about this whole discussion is that NO ONE has ever answered my primary contention, which is that if Christ is the center of a writer's life, he will also be central to the writer's output. It's like saying that in fact putting a lamp under a bed or a basket gives enough light to begin with, and isn't that good enough?

Robert Treskillard said...


The Keeper and the Tolkien issue have just merged, I think.

My understanding of "A Elbereth Gilthoniel" was that this was not a reference to God, but to a lesser being. I thought that it was a reference to Eärendil, who took one of the silmarils up into the sky, but I was wrong.

"Elbereth Gilthoniel" is Varda, queen of the Valar, which is Tolkien's equivalent to an arch-angel.

So the hymns and prayers to Elbereth (as you mention) are not directly to God, but to an angel. Maybe that's his Catholicism coming out. Hmmm...

Anyway, if the Keeper is some sort of angel, or servant of God, then the two are actually equivalent, so I thought that was interesting.

(My theory of the Keeper could be completely off base, however!)

Here is the wikipedia article on Elbereth Gilthoniel:

You are right, though, that no one seems to know God in the Expanse, at least not as revealed yet. So I understand your "putting a lamp under a bed" issue, and I agree that there is a lot that has to be resolved.

I still have hope that it will.

I read Jeffrey Overstreet somewhere talking about Scharr Ben Frey, and saying loosely that "he isn't the one with all the answers, rather he is the one with all the questions, and he is seeking the truth about the Expanse and what is happening."

My guess is that what he finds will answer a lot of these questions. It'll be interesting to see what happens in the series.

Question: What do you mean by "light"? Do you mean "the gospel", in the sense that a Christian writer has to give the gospel (in some way) in their fiction?

Obviously that would be great, but for me I don't know if that would be required, or possible, in every book.

If a Christian writer includes clear truths and a clear morality based on Christian principles, then he is sharing "light" as well. We all need this kind of light, too.

If by "light" you mean "hiding his Christianity", then you may be right in the sense that the book is not overt in its Christianity.

But is Jeffrey trying to hide his Christianity? I don't think so.

As you say, his non-fiction writings are clearly Christian, and his website shows that. Also, his bio on the back of the book says he writes for Christianity Today. Any thinking reader would assume he is a Christian.

Is that enough, though? There's the question...

Thanks for discussing this. Sorry for my long comments!


Steve said...

I was aware who and what Elbereth was, which is why I said that it reflected Tolkien's Catholicism. However, the question of whether it is proper to pray to angels isn't particularly relevant. The question is whether angels or anything short of God may be described in unequivocally divine terms and act as an agent of salvation and object of worship.

I'd suggest you read an earlier post on the subect. That should explain my reservations. I'll also add that Overstreet has in fact reduced the divine language about the Keeper in the current book.

Robert Treskillard said...


Thanks for pointing me to your earlier post ... that definitely helps me understand your reservations coming into this novel.

I explored your blog a bit and found a lot of other good stuff, and I'm putting you in my bookmarks of blogs to read.

Thanks for the discussion!


Steve said...

I assumed you were aware of the earlier posts; I should've brought them up earlier in the discussion.

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