Tuesday, October 6, 2009

If Only You Knew 3: Weak points and conclusion

Time for the weak points ofMags Storey's If Only You Knew. I'll start with a theological matter that's a bit involved but that explains some quirks elsewhere.

Q & A? No way! One of the annoying features of the Gathering is that it has a question-and-answer format. This is a bad idea on several levels. For one thing, honest questions can generally be better addressed one on one or using a Web site. Doing it in public will lead to grandstanding and arguments. This is not how evangelism is done.

Worse yet, at one point they set up debates on topics such as abortion. Again, ill-conceived on several levels. Someone is going to wind up trying to defend something evil, and he'll probably be a new believer. It won't end well.

Let's look at an example involving abortion. The pro-life side was lazy, just assuming that everyone knew abortion was wrong. Now, it's true we should be able to explain why we believe what we believe. But the actions of the pro-abortion side were inexcusable:

The girl who was arguing the other side was a really quiet girl named Ronnie. She had done a lot of research. I mean a lot. She had even visited an abortion clinic and done interviews. She had looked up all types of Bible verses, including one in Ecclesiastes where Solomon says that no human being knows when an unborn baby gets a soul, and one in Exodus that says the punishment for killing a person is not the same as killing an unborn baby. Ronnie talked very slowly and very quietly, and you could tell people were listening. When she started talking about showing compassion to girls who had been raped, one of the other girls started to cry. (p. 68)

She later says that she doesn't believe that abortion's right, but “I think some issues are more complicated than some people want to believe sometimes.” (p. 68)

Let's consider this a bit.

1. Ronnie defends an action she considers wrong just to show that it's more complex than people think. But it's still wrong, and she's still defending it. And she's doing so before impressionable new believers and unbelievers.

2. Despite wanting to show people the complexity of the issue, she resorts to bad reasoning. The Bible passages given (Eccl 11:5 and Ex 21:22-25) do not say what the speaker (and by extension the author) claim. The verse in Ecclesiastes is a variant interpretation, and not a likely one; neither would it greatly affect the debate were it accurate. The passage in Exodus is irrelevant because it does not say that the baby dies, only that the mother gives birth prematurely, and even if the baby does die, (1) life for life is demanded or (2) one could argue that the death was unintentional and the case is like that in Num 35:22-25, only with a different procedure.

So we can see why debating such things is a very bad idea. But this attitude of doing evil that good may come of it and presenting complexity (even if spurious) does explain something about the book as a whole.

All Jerks, All the Time! I have to admit, I don't like the characters, except perhaps Kat. She's actually likable, and by an amazing coincidence, she doesn't appear to be a Christian. Everyone else is a jerk, and most of them have some kind of Danish prince complex as well. They got angst in their pants, and they wanna pose and brood and occasionally scream a lot. I found myself wondering how quite so many inmates managed to escape the asylum, but the Abortion Debate enlightened me: this is yet another case of showing complexity.

Now, it's true that Everyone Has Problems, and teens frequently haven't got a grip on the "quiet" part of leading lives of quiet desperation. This still strikes me as overblown. And it does bother me that the Christians seem to be more obnoxious than the unsaved. I sometimes think that's true, and if so, it likely involves the pressure of going against the flow. But I also generally leave the Evil Christian meme to the secular writers.

And where does this attempt at balance get us? As a Christian, I was sufficiently annoyed that I wouldn't have bothered finishing this had it not been assigned reading, so to speak. But if I had been unsaved, while I might have revelled in seeing the Christians portrayed as losers, when I reached the place where they inevitably started to play nice and take their meds, I'd probably have dropped it unfinished anyway.

Conclusion. The ending is good, and there are some good points made in the last several pages. But the first 80% of the story is troubling. If you're aware of the issues, you may find the story "mostly harmless." As for me, I will hope that the writer turns her considerable talents--for she is an excellent writer--to better stories in the future.

Enough heresy! Check out the actual CFRB tour:

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Mags Storey said...

Dear Simon,

I have really been enjoying your blog comments. I think your first one (the overview) was fantastic!

I absolutely loved it and nearly fell off the sofa laughing at the cleverness of the closing lines!

Thank you also for your well considered criticisms. I had been watching your blog since yesterday awaiting them.

1) I am sorry the “Abortion debate” scene was open to such gross misinterpretation.

The scene was not portrayed as happening at The Gathering – but as a historical account of something damaging which the pastor, Patrick, had witnessed years earlier as a young teenager.

Patrick was not meant to be seen as condoning the incident!! Rather he referred to the incident as a negative one which caused broken relationships and disruption in the group!

However, I am very glad you brought it up. You are the first reviewer to have ever done so – and it is a difficult scene.

The point I was attempting to make is that when Christians fail to do their homework, or fail to seriously think through what they believe and why, they can find themselves unable to counter against the arguments of others.

We need to be able to defend our faith, in a world where people are hostile to who we are, and to what we believe.

The world will debate us. The world will challenge us. We need to know how to hold firm to our faith in the face of that.

2) As far as the Christians being all jerks all the time?

I would say that my main teenage characters are all broken people who encounter the transformational love of Jesus Christ.

Each, in one way or another, acknowledge their sin and turn it over to God.

I would also point out that there are several, more mature, Christian supporting characters who are not jerks and who are portrayed in a wholly positive light – including those in church leadership.

I was not out to bash the faith I cling to. I wholly believe Jesus changes lives. He also saves sinners.

I know Christian readers who have cried as they read the book – because they found in it an honest portrayal of their brokenness and the hope that God could still love them.

Would reading about less-sinful characters have challenged and convicted them the same way?

Where is the love of God demonstrated if not in the lives of those who so obviously need it?

Would the impact of the testimonies in final pages be the same had the reader not first witnessed their obvious flaws?

I do not know. Perhaps a better writer could have done more to address your concerns. But I am as flawed and in need of God's daily presence as the characters I create.

As I wrote in my blog this week, “I have no perfect friends. I know no perfect people. I am far from perfect. And so I sat down and created a bunch of people like me – flawed and foolish, broken and lost – but ultimately able to find a spiritual faith that makes sense in the middle of it all.”

Thank you so much for raising these points!

I wrote the book in full knowledge that these could be the charges made against it. And I greatly appreciate your comments.

You write with a decisive and creative flair that makes for great reading.


Steve said...

Thank you for replying; I didn't expect such a thing since I was operating off-tour, but it's always good to hear from the author.

Minor point: My name is Steve, actually. I have a character named Simon who is eminently quotable ("God only closes a door so he can throw you out a window"), but I'm not him.

The Abortion Debate--I apologize for messing up the scene; I knew it wasn't the Gathering proper. But while Patrick may not have been keen on the results (though he never rejected Ronnie's arguments), he effectively endorsed the intellectualizing path that produced them.

My experience has been that people who ask a lot of questions are like the woman at the well: they just want to sidetrack someone who's confronting them with God. The time for answering questions is generally one on one with someone on the brink of salvation, if not already inside.

Jerks--the adults, leaders, etc., seemed like outsiders. They were there, rather like the squawking heads in a Charlie Brown cartoon, but they weren't available to the reader the way the teens were. Kevin seems pretty together initially, for example, so why should the people we don't get to know so well be any better?

I'm not asking for perfect Christians. I just found it troubling that Sam, who was hostile to Christianity, was a far more sympathetic character than any of the Christians, and Kat, though not precisely hostile, was evidently not a Christian herself--it's okay for some people, perhaps, but not for her. Yet she is probably the most obviously admirable character in the story. So the unsaved tend to be cooler than the saved. That can happen--it does happen. But it's not a good focus in a story that impressionable people may read.

It may indeed move some people to tears. So does Bambi. My own response was a terrible sadness. The ending was very good, and I liked the beginning. But what I saw in the middle and suspect even at the end is a bunch of people careering down some tracks toward a rapidly approaching light--and it isn't Jesus.

In any case, I am giving up modern Christian fiction, for the most part. I'm called as a writer, not as a reader, and the things I've been called on to read for various groups have interfered with my actual calling.

cathikin said...

I was going to come to Meg's defense on the debates, but I see she already has. When I read this, I saw that part as pointing to a mistake--someone's "good idea" that wasn't. It pointed out the problem of lazy Christians who don't really do their homework, though.

It's true that most of the characters aren't all that likable, although a couple of them grow on me. And I could think of people I actually know that were all too much like most of them, so they were far from unbelievable. If only those who resemble these 'jerks' would read such tales repent!!

Mags Storey said...

Steve! So sorry to get your name wrong! I had been reading up on your fiction the other day and must have gotten the names melded in my head. Being a geek myself, and a huge fan of science fiction, I was quite interested to read of your work

You and I are obviously called to write from different vantage points and to different types of people.

Best of luck in your calling.

David said...

Steve, I love you like a brother and wish I had the insight and mechanical abilities that writers need you do. There is one problem we have butted heads over before, and that a critique is quite different from a review, both in scope and intent. Your "reviews" have constantly been "critiques" assessing a writer's abilities and inabilities. Problems that should be brought to the author privately are made public. This should not be. You enjoyed the beginning and the end of the book. You stated that Mags was "an excellent writer." Why would you, then, so vehemently attack this writer and sister in Christ in an open forum?

You may be asking why I am asking these questions of you publicly. The reason is that you brought it into the public spotlight. I defend Mags because she is my sister in Christ, and call you, as my brother in Christ, to mend some fences. This does not mean you have to have different feelings about the book. It does, however, mean that when one member of the body suffers the whole body suffers, and that we should never be the cause of another's suffering. What you stated in this 3rd post you could have stated privately, encouraging her to do better in the future, not tearing her down. I am pleased to see the grace and steadfastness with which she replied to this post. You seemed to have missed that. Work together with the body my brother or you may find you are no minister of Christ someday.

David Brollier
co-founder of CFRB

Steve said...

Taking your points in order:

There is one problem we have butted heads over before, and that a critique is quite different from a review, both in scope and intent. Your "reviews" have constantly been "critiques" assessing a writer's abilities and inabilities.

My assessment of Storey's abilities was that she was an above-average writer. I don't see the problem there. I did take issue with an idea or method, but that's quite extrinsic to her writing ability and involves rather a spiritual and intellectual issue.

Problems that should be brought to the author privately are made public.

But if something has been published, it has by definition been made public. A public matter must be dealt with publicly. Had she and I been in a critique group (and such groups incidentally are no more keen on such analyses than you are, making accountability on your terms impossible), I could have and would have addressed the matter privately. Since the work has been published, I have a responsibility to readers.

You enjoyed the beginning and the end of the book. You stated that Mags was "an excellent writer." Why would you, then, so vehemently attack this writer and sister in Christ in an open forum?

You would rather I had done it in a closed forum, where no one could comment?

Be that as it may, I challenge you to find anything I have written that can reasonably be described as a vehement attack—or indeed an attack at all—on Storey herself. I have attacked some ideas, for example that it is acceptable to present a defense of evil without a proper disclaimer. The arguments presented were never actually denounced, and that is a problem, for a reader could easily conclude that they were valid and that abortion is not in fact a big deal in the sight of God.

If you cannot find an attack on Storey, I would suggest that you have yourself slandered a fellow Christian. You might want to ponder the implications of that.

You may be asking why I am asking these questions of you publicly. The reason is that you brought it into the public spotlight.

A public spotlight that included reviewing the book off-tour: I referenced the tour, but so far as I knew or know even yet, I was not on that tour. You are villifying me not for my actions as part of your group—something you could reasonably claim authority over—but for an action done privately (relative to CFRB), on my own blog.

'Nother words, it is you who are trespassing and asserting an authority that you do not possess in this case.

I would strongly suggest that you re-read your own post and see how much love it actually contains—and how much sanctimony and willingness to attack someone you claim to love.

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