Saturday, July 08, 2006

Biblical Allusions/ Formula Christian Fantasy

You'll want to drop by a couple of sites today for recent posts of interest:

First, over at A Christian Worldview of Fiction, Rebecca LuElla "Call me Becky" Miller is ruminating on the loss of Biblical knowledge and its impact today on allusions within works of fiction.

I've got a story--two, in fact--from my college days about that:

So, here I am, studying Shakespearean tragedies, finding it not too hard and lots of fun, up to my nose in essays and commentaries.

However, it quickly comes to the teacher's attention that most of the class is utterly clueless about the Christian terms and allusions that Shakespeare is using. She uses one class to cover basic terms so that they can better understand their OTHELLO and MACBETH. One gal, after class, complains that it's indoctrination and maybe she'll complain to the dean. I say, "What? Are you out of your fricken mind? It's education, not indoctrination. You can't tell the difference? Most of the class had no idea what certain passages meant without her explanation today."

The dorkette did complain. The professor, a medieval scholar's daughter and literary expert, was not fired. Huzzah.

Poetry class: I write a haiku about David and Goliath. (Don't ask me to post it. I don't remember anything other than "five smooth stones" and "that topples a Colossus.") I think "David" was part of the title. NOT ONE PERSON IN A CLASS OF TWENTY OTHER THAN THE PROFESSOR KNEW WHO DAVID AND GOLIATH WERE. This in a class with a couple of Jewish people. Clearly, nominally Jewish. It was an eye-opening moment of the depth and breadth of cultural ignorance about things historical and Biblical.

No wonder they sucked at interpreting poetry. How do these people get through Milton and Moby Dick?


On to our second link of the day:

Rebecca over at Of Making Many Books has posted an additional segment of her multi-part series on fantasy in the CBA: Night of the Evil Gnomes Part 7: Why Christian Fantasy Doesn't Satisfy.

"Act One: Christian in trouble. Nonchristian secondary character about to get in trouble.

Act Two: Christian gets into even bigger trouble but begins to figure a way out of it with a Bible verse and prayer. Nonchristian in deep shit they can’t escape without a miracle.

Act Three: Christian solves problem.

Let's see how that would work in secular fantasy:

Act One: Protagonist gets in trouble. Villain makes things worse.

Act Two: Protagonist gets into bigger trouble, but begins to tap into hidden powers and join forces with comrades to overcome the enemy. Villain pulls out the big magic guns to bring protagonist to his knees. Protagonist finds source of even greater strength (a friend, a wizard, a love, a memory, a magic word, supernatural courage) and beats back all threats.

Act Three: Knowledge gained or powerful act done allows for restoration of better kingdom, empire, or cosmos.

Yeah, so what's the point? Lots of fantasy books can be reduced to a formula, just as romances and mysteries can. It's what's done IN the formula that matters.

It's the rare artists, the special boundary-pushers, the especially genius who create works of unclassifiable natures. The rest is classifiable.

I happen not to believe that works that fit a formula are bound to be bad. Many of the books that are beloved classics or have won Nebula and Hugo awards in the secular SF world follow the hero's journey (ENDER'S GAME, LORD OF THE RINGS, WIZARD OF OZ, and DUNE) and are quite satisfying.

So, a formula does not mean that variation cannot lead to a great read with deeply moving characters.

It only makes sense that a higher being, a God, even a holy book, play a part in the formula of Christian Fantasy. If fantasy is a metaphor for our reality, only hyperbolized, the heroic and the evil larger than life, then if our reality includes a God and a Book, that will translate unconsciously into Christian fantasy.

It's the execution. It's the avoidance of simplistic answers. It's the avoidance of numbing cliches.

But you can work with formula!

Doubtless there are multiple factors explaining why recent Christian fantasy of the modern CBA sort hasn't been satisfying enough to break out into its own successful genre, as it has in the ABA. Granted, spec-fic readers do want the wonder and surprise and innovation and freshness. However, we do like heroes to win and villains to pay (even if definitions of heroes and villains can get murky at times), and that's a formulaic thing. Christians like for characters to show repentance, acqusition of virtues, and we like our heroes to pray and seek guidance and power from a supreme being. We're wired to believe that is part of the reality that fantasy can reinterpret.

Perhaps, reinterpret is the key.

I pretty much have stuck to Christian sci-fi in novel form rather than fantasy. (I'm not really a dragon, elves, dwarves kind of gal, except in short stories.)So, I really need for Rebecca to spell out three or six Christian fantasy novels that follow the above formula she's laid out, and specify if they failed specifically because of that three-act predictability, or if other craft elements did not work to make the formula come alive.

I ask, because that formula has sold a lot of CBA romances and women's fiction. And if women primarily read secular fantasies, then that formula should attract women who read Christian romances and women's fiction to fantasy in the CBA. But it doesn't in numbers one might think.

I would add that a strong God element would turn-off non-Christians, so any character reading the Bible and spouting verses, while totally accepted in CBA, would turn off non-Christian or ABA readers.

I happen to think that if you write a new world, one that is not our extrapolated future or our mostly-realistic past world (but with fantastical elements), you shouldn't drop in typical Christian-speak. Churcheses is jarring in those cases.

I don't want to be in another land, another world, and here comes John 3:16.

If it's sci-fi and you are in the possible future, then Christianity can be core Christianity with a future twist, one to suit the speculated times. If it's fantasy land, then you have to form a religion or ethos suited to that specific fantasy land's "persona." And yes, created lands have a personality. Southern Baptists don't fit in Middle Earth as Southern Baptists exactly are, and Roman Catholicism will be as different in 2506 as today's differs from it's 1506 version. Or more.

I do agree to one main point: The plot needs to be resolved with more than a verse and a prayer.

I really need to know the names of those modern Christian fantasies that resolved it with a verse and a prayer. No, really. Rebecca, lay them on me, girl.

God in the Fantasy Machine is as lame a conclusion (usually) as just magic in the box or the spell in the book or the wizard in the grotto. Characters should have to work at change in themselves and in their worlds. Fiction is about developing characters with voices with internal issues with external woes with companions and lovers and enemies and obstacles. All elements of good stories.

My heroine's faith journey is part of the plot. If she doesn't go on the journey, it changes the shape of her world. What she does and what she believes are crucial. So, she's gonna have to get illumined and have internal change. But she also has a heroine's journey, and I don't apologize for it having an ancient pattern.

There's a reason the hero's journey works. And I believe it goes back to Eden.


Rebecca said...

Tag, you're it!

Mirtika said...

Heck, yeah, I'm "it". ; )

But this baby is in your lap. I'll eagerly await Gnomes part 8.


Becky said...

Mir, good comments. I think you have a point about the hero's journey. My problem with it is predictability. I think a writer can incorporate it, but by following it, surprise is pretty much off.

As to the Biblical knowledge issue, I want to address your point Monday at my site. It's really where I've been headed--I'm just taking the scenic route! ;-)

Those examples from your college days are beyond eye-opening. I'd have assumed David and Goliath would still be familiar!

Becky ("Don't call be Rebecca until I'm published" ;-)

Mirtika said...

Well, like I said. I came from the romance reading world (from 1987 through 1999, I was a romance reading fool) and romance readers know how it will end. True love conquers, guy marries girl, happy ending. The knowing doesnt' change that the surprise in in how you get there.

In any quest, we know that for it to satisfy, the hero needs to get to the end, and either die succeeding or live succeeding. No one would be pleased with LOTR if they ring never got tossed in and Sauron won.

But the journey--what happens from here to there and how is the mission thrown for loops before it's achieved it's goal--that's what the quest is about. Romance genre and quest fiction are all about the journey and the cast.

All novels don't fit this pattern. But it's a legitimate pattern.


Mirtika said...

It's like Agatha Christie. You were gonna have them gather in a room at the end to have Hercule pick out the murderer. Or have Miss Marple unravel the tangle.

We knew that. They'd solve it. They'd gather the suspects to solve it (often). But the how and why--that made for good reads. A problem, increasing woes, allies and enemies, and the big crisis. That's not about to st op being satisfying because it's a predictable pattern.


Becky said...

Well, I do think the predictable patter of increasing woes, a wise mentor, companions joining the crusade, etc. can become so familiar it no longer engages. Like the elves backlash (see Dave Long's comments about elves). Familiarity breeds contempt. If we do something long enough, readers will get bored with it eventually.

I think the challenge is to keep the journey quest fresh by breaking some of the mold maybe. Of course this is all untested ...