Sunday, December 09, 2007

What a Person (Character) Is vs
What a Person (Character) Ought to be

An email conversation got me thinking about something, and I figure I'd better post it since, if I go through with the eye surgery, I won't have use of the computer from anywhere from 24 hours to more (Lord, help me!). (I read where complications had one woman off for 8 weeks. I would...die of withdrawal.)

No, no. NO complications. I will not even speak that into my life.

Anyway, the subject: What people and characters ARE as opposed to what they OUGHT to be.

I read a review of a particular novel that said that a character did not behave in such a manner that testified to a true conversion. (Oh, and that he deserved some bad thing that happened afterwards as a consequence of disobedience.)

At first, it didn't much speak to me. I mean, I know what the reviewer meant. It's a sort of narrow idea of behavior that I've seen before, particularly from readers and writers with a high sense of Christian mission in writing and preference in reading. (Maybe it's the same with Muslims and Orthodox Jews, etc, but I'm not much in fellowship with writing circles and reading groups of said faiths, so dunno.)

And I bet I've said and written the very thing myself in the past. I didn't mean ill by it, just using a sort of "Well, it's a heroic character and if they had a conversion, lemme see some spiritual and virtue-associated heroism of character."

Biblically, conversion means there should be a change. I won't dispute this.

However, conversion doesn't mean you suddenly become a paragon of virtue, acting consistently with revelation at every turn.

Um, not in this cosmos!

However, those words in that review had a chilling effect on more than one person who read the pronouncement on the character. And I understand that as well, because it touches on something I've brought up in reviewing novels with uber-squeaky people who say and do uber-squeaky things. Hallelujah, I've been saved and now sin touches me no more. That sort of thing. It may have come up when I reviewed, say, BLACK CHERRY (can't recall, but mebbe). It certainly applies to WIND FOLLOWER, where the process of moving toward truth is gradual and includes human missteps and poor judgement.

I believe there is a sort of fiction that offers charm by virtue of having the uber-sqeaksome. It's a sort of naive, gentle, fantastical in its own way, heart-warming ideal. And for some genres, subgenres, certain works of certain tone, it's just right, like Goldilock's porridge.

For most works, I think it's misleading and blinkered.

I converted to the faith decisively and zealously several decades ago. It changed me in a fundamental way--the way I saw, the way I understood, the way I perceived, the way I hoped. But it didn't perfect me. I was a screw-up in many ways after I said, "Yeah, Lord, here I am, I repent and I believe." I still sinned.

What changed was the battle in my mind and spirit.

If I knew I was tempted and gave in to the desire--be it an uncharitable thought, a lustful thought, a greedy thought, a covetous though, an envious thought, or an action in relation to any of those--my interior domain was not a peaceful place. I warred in my internal parts. Okay, maybe the war was often more like a lazy skirmish followed by a quiet nap full of self-justifications, but having been sealed by the Spirit did something: It never allowed me to sin without knowing and feeling ill at ease to some extent (be it minor or major), except in cases where I was still learning about the boundaries, where I was scouring the gray areas with my limited vision. (Still learning, scouring, and pondering to this day and will unto my dying day, no doubt.)

If I lied, no matter how benign the motive, I twinged. If I suspected I might have an ulterior motive for a benevolent act, even if I wasn't totally sure, I twinged. If I had a malicious thought, I was aware that this was not holy, even if I continued to indulge it long, long, weeks before caving and confessing.

Even during the years I was openly backslidden--Well, as backslidden as a goody-two-shoes like myself gets backslidden, which by the holy standards of YHWH is abominable, but by a materialistic and hedonistic society such as ours is a sort of "Oh, ho-hum, is that all?" sort of rebellion-- I knew it. I would wake up and think. God, I know I'm messing up, but I'm tired of the fight, and sorry, I'm just gonna go with the sin flow. I can't fight the flesh right now. I didn't kill, didn't go burglarizing, didn't shoot up drugs bought with money I pilfered from kin or employer, didn't pathologically lie to aggrandize myself, didn't smack around babies, didn't worship idols (other than myself, I suppose), didn't blaspheme the name of God, didn't abuse widows and orphans, etc. No, I just did stuff no one would think about twice in the US were they not fixated on the pristine glory of the Word and the Lord.

(I'll add that along with gluttony and lust, selfishness has always been a besetting sin. I am overly self-protective and reclusive, and that has a way of cutting people out. The Mir is a work-in-progress. Unfortunately, my culture is one that encourages selfishness (hence the consumerism, the ads making one feel justified in getting the self-serving goodies, the explosion of boob jobs and nose jobs and butt jobs, the billions spent on fashionable clothes and make-up, etc. Yeah, we're a selfish set.)

Still, I knew it. Knew I had fallen into a muddy, slimy place and was allowing myself to wallow.

When I came back, got all clean, revived, renewed, it was because I decided fighting was better than wallowing, even if I got really, really exhausted of the constant battle, the war against the world, flesh, and devil.

It can still get tiring, but one thing happened as I got older (maybe wiser, don't put it in stone) is that I got a greater sense of the overwhelming, surrounding, invasive, refreshing love of God. I just had this sense that as much as a slimebasket as my thought life might be some days, as vengeful as my heart might be some days, as judgemental as my brain might be some days, as willful as my spirit might be some days, through every single one of those flaws and days...I was utterly and irrevocably loved.

I remember reading how Rich Mullins came to a similar realization and it utterly, devastatingly changed his perspective.

Well, yeah. It does. It makes the battle no less a battle, but it gives you sustenance, and the surety that if the wound is bad and you fall, even of your own doing the wound, the Lord does not flee your side. He is there, saying, "I see your spots and scars and the specks that mar your vision, and I still love you." And He washes me up again and I go on.

I want my characters to be like me. They can mess up royally, even after a radical conversion, and still feel that love is there, unchanged, unreserved, patient until the day of consummation and perfection.

A reviewer who expects characters to suddenly live up to the highest sort of virtue, human impulses aside, is a reviewer who does not give grace to the people of a book. And if not to those ficitonal characters, then how to real-life screw-ups like me? Or like most of the people in the Bible--including the drunks, the adulterers, the gossips, the whoremongers, the liars, the backbiters, the causers of dissension, the selfish of the New Testament church that Paul chastised with such energy, but which God continued to unwaveringly call His saints and beloved ones by the Spirit that spoke through Paul. To the the the saints... All those letters to screw-ups called saints.

I'm not a saint cause I"m perfect. I'm a saint cause in His infinite grace He has set me aside for His purposes and to be His own.

I want my characters who are "saints" NOT to be perfect. I want them to mess-up. Sometimes, really, really horribly: To lust and fall. To lie to save face. To steal from the church missions fund or their best friend. To cheat on a spouse or on taxes. Even to kill. To be gluttons and fat as a barn. (Um, I'm on a diet. Honest.)

Because it's when they think, desire, and maybe do such tings, and when we see how they respond to both their resisting of temptation and their falling to it, that's when we can see the effects of conversion in the most realistic of ways. Not perfection from day one, all heroic and spotless--which is God's attribute, not mine. But struggle not to sin, and if sin comes, then second thoughts, battle, internal crisis, shame, remorse, repentance, reconciliation.

Saints sin and know it. Saints sin and pay a price inside for it, and sometimes outside. (Yo, David!)

If a reviewer expects a perfect decision from a converted character faced with overwhelming temptation at their weakest point--full frontal Satanic attack on sorest spot--does that reviewer live a perfect post-conversion life that justifies that view? Or is it merely a question of idealization in art, when life is not ideal?

Are your characters reflecting how people ARE or are they what you think people ought to be post-conversion? How do you judge them, and how do you judge flesh and blood folks like them?

It's okay, imo, to idealize in certain stories for certain effects. It's a tool of the craft, like anything else. But I question the sort of criticism that does not allow characters to be...human. There is a merciless quality, a lack of grace there for the human condition.

And I have tossed that stone out myself. Maybe this is a stone, too, though it's intended to be something much less hard and unforgiving.



CaroleMcDonnell said...

Wow, woman! What a post! So you were one of those "scrupulous" ones, were you? I love that word, the old meaning of it anyway.

To me, Conversion means plain and simple, A) turning from one's sins, B) turning from one's own righteousness and legalistic approach to life, C)accepting God's love and righteousness.

I have no doubt -- no doubt, whatsoever-- that hell is full of very good Christians. Folks who began by faith but tossed aside their faith and trusted in their own righteousness. It's a shaky path. We must be good but if ever we start moving from faith in Christ's blood to faith in our own works of righteousness/behavior, then we have ended up trusting in the flesh.

For me, if a person/character stops being "bad" and starts being "good" he is still not saved. He's still into the flesh and is trusting the law and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. He is still trusting in something other than the blood of Jesus.

So when I read a Christian book or see a Christian movie in which a person finds Jesus and starts behaving good, I accept it but I also look carefully that even after the supposed conversion, he has been converted away from self-righteousness and, even while being good, is trusting that it's Jesus' goodness and blood. that saved his immortal soul.

Heather said...

Thanks for being open about your struggles.
As a Christian writing fiction, I get many suggestions from folks: why don't you write an example of such-and-such, a model of virtue.
It's tempting to. Wouldn't it be nice if a character embodied Gal. 5:22?
But then I look at the characters in the Bible. Sure, some of them modeled virtue.
But most of them were reluctant, flawed, and downright dirty.


As you mentioned somewhere in that post, Christians are not alone in their high-mindedness when it comes to how characters are expected to behave.

Despite the fact that one of the rules for creating interesting characters is to give them room to grow or change, one complaint I have encountered from non-believers is that one of my main characters isn't as strong as he should be at the outset. (His story arc involves change and gradual acquisition of strength.) It seems "Insta-Hero"--Just Add Water!--is the expectation.

I like that you mention Rich Mullins. Man, what I wouldn't give to be the poet he was. "That reckless, raging fury that they call the love of God"--good stuff.

Carmen Andres said...

mir, said: "I want my characters to be like me. They can mess up royally, even after a radical conversion, and still feel that love is there, unchanged, unreserved, patient until the day of consummation and perfection."

great reflection! i just had this conversation around a dinner table with friends and believe more than ever that the journey of conversion is not a one-time deal but a lifetime trip - one where we walk with Jesus and stumble, fall, crash-and-burn, and go off the road with Jesus right beside us to help us up again. it is one where the life Jesus and NT writers describe is who we become as we learn to trust God as we go more and more consistently - and one where God somehow weaves each of those stumbles and falls into his relentless love and work to bring home this broken world of broken people. so bravo, girlfriend! bravo!