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The Inspirational Element–Making it Believable

Thursday, February 7, 2008

I have to admit, I’ve been a day ahead of myself all week . . . I almost started posting my Fun Friday topic! But I’m actually glad we have another day this week to explore the Inspirational Element topic. Next week, we’ll captstone the series with a guest column by Rachel Hauck and a wrap-up.

Georgiana posted an interesting comment on yesterday’s post:

God did create a huge diversity for us to enjoy, and yet sometimes I do feel the prickle of guilt for spending time on “secular” things.

This always reminds me of the verse that I had to memorize in junior high, at a small Christian school, when our Bible teacher was trying to convince us to never listen to secular music or watch movies or TV ever again:

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. (Philippians 4:8, NAS*)

I think we, as the members of “the Church” have a tendency to give this verse a connotation I’m not sure was actually meant by Paul. Look at the four verses that come before it:

4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!
5 Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near.
6 Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
(Philippians 4:4–7, NAS*)

Just before we’re told to “dwell” on that which is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, of any excellence, or worthy of praise, we’re told to rejoice, to show the gentle spirit God has given us, to be anxious for nothing, to pray openly . . . and if we do all of this, His peace will be with us and will guard our hearts and minds.

I think we have too much of a tendency to just look at verse 8 and interpret it to say that the only things that are “true . . . honorable . . . right . . . pure,” etc., are those things which “the Church” deems are “Christian” and therefore worthy of our time and attention and heaven forbid that we should find any kind of pleasure in that which isn’t sanctioned by whatever branch of “the Church” we attend—because we all know what’s “holy” differs from flavor to flavor even within “the Church” (for example, why it’s okay for Methodists and Episcopalians to dance but Baptists aren’t supposed to).

Certainly, there are so-called secular activities which we are better off avoiding—those things which we know will lead us into sin. This isn’t the same for everyone though. Some may need to choose not to see rated-R movies, while for others, it’s not a stumbling block. For some, listening to “secular” music may draw them further away from God, while for others, music has very little effect on them. And so on.

We are also exhorted:

Watch over your heart with all diligence,
For from it flow the springs of life. (Proverbs 4:23, NAS*)

and:

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2, NAS*)

I think I’m in pretty good company when I say that we can do these things (guard our hearts, be transformed not conformed) even when participating in “secular” activities: reading ABA published books, writing books that don’t have an overt inspirational message, enjoying a movie or TV show, listening to music, viewing art, and so on. It all goes back to the filters, to the worldview, through which we see all of it. Not everything in the world is going to be edifying or useful for us as Christians, but I am totally against the idea that the only things we should find pleasure in are those that are labeled “Christian” or “Inspirational.” Even Jesus enjoyed a good dinner amongst sinners. 🙂

If you do not yet own it, there is one book I believe every Christian who is an author (whether writing fiction with an inspirational element or not) is Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water. Not only does she spend quite a bit of time discussing what I’ve been trying to say in a round-about way—finding the Divine in the mundane—but it’s a great refreshment for the soul. I can pick it up, turn to a random page, and come away renewed and ready to write.

In the essay “Novelist and Believer,” short-story scribe Flannery O’Connor wrote “As a novelist, the major part of my task is to make everything, even an ultimate concern, as solid, as concrete, as specific as possible.”

As a Christian, a major part of this task is to make the inspirational element “as solid, as concrete, as specific as possible.” O’Connor believed, and I agree, that this doesn’t mean beating the reader over the head with the Four Spiritual Laws: “The problem of the novelist who wishes to write about a man’s encounter with his God is how he shall make the experience—which is both natural and supernatural—understandable, and credible, to his reader.”

I know of so many people who won’t pick up a “Christian” novel because they don’t want to be preached at. They want a good story. Yes, I do believe that God has appointed some books to have an overt Evangelical message and that these books have had an impact on people’s lives. But for the majority of “everyday Joe” readers, a much more subtle message may reach them even better. I have found myself in the past skipping over large sections of some “Christian” novels because the author turned into a preacher, and what they wrote doesn’t really move the novel along in any meaningful way, except to make one of the characters a Christian through a very standard and, usually, clichéd conversion scene. There have been others, though, that have so deftly woven the inspirational element into their stories that they’ve led me to tears as the character comes to salvation. The difference is believability—credibility.

“But the real novelist,” O’Connor wrote, “The one with an instinct for what he is about, knows that he cannot approach the infinite directly, that he must penetrate the natural human world as it is.” Or as Walker Percy wrote, “The trick of the novelist, as the Psalmist said, is to sing a new song, use new words . . .”

What’s been your experience in reading novels with an inspirational message when the message has overwhelmed the story so much as to make it unbelievable—where it became more about the message and no longer about the story? What books have you read where the author so deftly wove in the inspirational message that it moved you or made you wish you could write like that? What about books without an inspirational message—have they ever helped you come to a better understanding of your relationship with God or your view of the world? In what ways do you find the “Divine” in the secular world, and how do you apply that to your writing?

Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

4 Comments
  1. Thursday, February 7, 2008 12:19 pm

    I’m not sure if this answers the questions in your final paragraph, but I know that different Christian fiction readers want different depths of teaching in their novels.

    Before we moved, I ran a Christian fiction book club, and it was challenging to keep everyone happy with what we were reading. There was one member who would always say they wished there had been more Scripture in the story, more Bible teaching.

    Most of us, though, just wanted a good, clean story, and if it made us stop and think about some aspect of our lives, that was totally fine. So to me, there’s value in the whole spectrum of Christian fiction. Yes, I might skip over sections in a book that gets too preachy, but I know there are others who’ll eat that up.

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  2. Thursday, February 7, 2008 12:45 pm

    There was one book I can specifically remember where the character was so weirded out by money that I couldn’t read the book. To me that was preachy in a way I didn’t expect when I picked it up. In fact, it wasn’t realistic even for the most fundamental Christian (at least IMO.) Most of the time, like Sally, I’m looking for a clean read, where I don’t get tripped up by a swear word or an unexpected sex scene, like what happens in almost any ABA book.

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  3. Thursday, February 7, 2008 2:53 pm

    I love inspirational or Christian novels although they are not all created equal with regard to their message. Some are heavier than others. I don’t have a problem with that. In fact, I think the diversity is necessary because we’re not all in the same place on our Christian journey. So not all inspirational and Christian novels speak to me the same way.

    We have to recognize that a lot of the things that we might find “preachy” or weird are really doctrinal issues, even if we don’t call them that. So are many of the CBA guidelines, like not dancing. That’s doctrine, not Scripture.

    So I can read pretty much any of it–unless the preachiness is way over the top–and recognize doctrine for what it is vs. the message of Christ.

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  4. Saturday, February 9, 2008 10:11 am

    It occurs to me that if our inspirational stories are authentic in telling about *people* (believers or nonbelievers), we don’t have to preach to give the message of Christ. It is something that our characters should live without meaning to. Even doctrine is really useless in a story unless the character is living it. I think Christians often forget in our writing that our own lives are not just so much talk. We’re humans who love God. Our Christianity is not forced by what we say (at least, I hope not!). If our stories are about humans who love God, it’s not so hard to have our characters live what they believe without having to explain it.

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