Encouragement, reading, spiritual growth, writing

A Discussion on Writing Spiritual Journeys (Part 2)

pexels-photo-235615.jpeg

Hello again! So, today I’m finishing up the discussion post I started last week, delving into how we authors can effectively incorporate our faith into our work without seeming irritating, preachy, or off-putting to readers. But today I’d like to take this post in a slightly different direction.

Many of us who write with a certain spiritual or religious message or theme in mind are drawing on the faith we grew up in. For lots of people the world over, religion is as much a part of who we are, in terms of heritage, as our eye color and height.

But the religion we’re born into may not be the one we embrace our entire lives. I’m not here to debate conversion experiences. I’m more interested in addressing covering this topic compassionately and objectively in fiction.

Yes, that’s right, I said objectively. If you’re writing a fiction piece that includes a character or characters that have changed their spiritual beliefs and practices, your focus needs to be so much more on the characters’ tale than your own personal testimony. The reason for this tactic is, again (vitally), not turning off readers who may not agree with your beliefs or worldview, but still want to read your fiction.

pexels-photo.jpg

As someone who came from a generic Christian background (as far as morals and traditions went), then spent a lot of time researching other religions, I think this is a big problem among Western “Christian market” publishers. As I mentioned before, I don’t like the way Christian novels are geared specifically towards people who are already churchgoers. That turns fiction that should be showing non-believers the beautiful teachings of Jesus of Nazareth into its own little niche culture. A niche that outsiders don’t necessarily feel comfortable jumping into.

And that feeds into the even bigger problem the modern Church already has, of people seeing us as a narrow-minded, unfriendly, keep-to-ourselves, stuck-up sort. That hardly teaches the world that the Savior came to die for everybody.

When I was young and exploring (and by the way, there’s nothing wrong with that), I came across a variety of people of a variety of religions. Some of the churchgoers were horrible, hypocritical, and very prejudiced. Others were awesome, warm, caring and tolerant. Some of the people I met from “fringe” or minority religions were very tolerant towards Christians; others thought the Church had committed too many terrible crimes, and weren’t about to forgive that. The biggest takeaway I got from all this was that the world in general has become so caught up in who gets the Earthly power and control and authority, that they no longer are concerned with matters such as a Creator, our purpose here, and can we communicate with that being.

stained-glass-spiral-circle-pattern-161154.jpeg

Since that was what I was looking for, I found myself much more drawn to reading from the source (rather than getting stuck in the political plays). I read up on the pantheons from ancient Greece and Rome and Egypt and Britain, on Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism. I was an equal opportunity researcher. I found some things I thought were really wonderful (like the idea of personal deities or saints that would take care of your specific needs in finances, health, etc. — indicating that the belief in a merciful, benevolent divine being is not sold simply by televangelists). Other stuff I wasn’t too fond of (the practices of animal sacrifice, for example).

Anyway, as I went, I discovered there are a lot of issues with mistranslation, history being written from only one point of view, and traditions shared between a number of cultures, and that all of this has created a hodgepodge of what we today call Christianity. These days, there’s no such thing as “pure Christianity” — unless your only goal is to follow the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament.

Not that this is a bad goal. Not at all. However, human beings have certainly distorted what’s “acceptable” (forcing Jews to convert, when they’re stated in your own holy writings as God’s chosen people, is just not cool), and what’s “real” (the ongoing debate on whether miracles still happen is raging somewhere as we speak), and it’s quite unfortunate.

pexels-photo-459303.jpeg

What I’d like to see much more of in fiction penned by Christian authors is a respect for other religions, a tolerance for characters who haven’t been “saved,” and a true love (not condemnation) portrayed for the homeless drug addict your narrator passes on a street corner. Remember, folks, Jesus went to dinner with prostitutes and happily hung out with non-Jews. He treated everyone as worth his time and he listened to them. He appreciated their belief in him more than their social class or status. Too many people who go to church every week, always tithe and never miss a Bible study — in real life and fiction — are never seen at a soup kitchen, an animal shelter, or bringing dinner to the Muslim family down the street.

If we feel that fiction is a great tool for allegories and encourage deeper thinking on spiritual matters, then let’s do that. Let’s include characters from different religious backgrounds, do our research and present non-stereotyped, healthy, loving portrayals. Let’s validate someone’s worth as a person from a non-Christian, non-monotheistic background, while we hope to show that a God they’ve never heard of loves them and wants to help them.

pexels-photo-277590.jpeg

Advertisements
reading, spiritual growth, writing

A Discussion on Writing Spiritual Journeys (Part 1)

pexels-photo-236636.jpeg

I’m part of an author community that prides itself on following a particular set of morals and ethics in their lives and in their writing. I’m not even going to debate the validity of that. What I’d like to start discussing today is this:

When you want your work to reflect certain spiritual values you have, what’s the best way to go about it?

There is a major issue these days with the faith-based publishing industry being just that — religious, even zealous, literally preaching to the choir, and not even attempting to reach people who don’t share your beliefs.

I like to think of myself as a pretty tolerant person. I do subscribe to a set of spiritual beliefs and try to practice them on a daily basis. I won’t deny that I believe what I believe, and that I find it extremely important. However, I want people who randomly come across my books on Goodreads or Barnes & Noble to feel that I’m approachable. That my work, while it does focus on Judeo-Christian lore and values, is approachable, even if they never go to church. Honestly, I don’t care if they alter/maintain/develop any spiritual views after reading my books. That’s not what I’m here for.

pexels-photo-730896.jpeg

But my hope is also that people who may be spiritually seeking might take away something about the messages of love, grace, mercy, and redemption that I include in my writing.

So, we come back to the beginning point: How do we, as authors and Christians, portray these concepts in our fiction, without seeming to do so from behind a pulpit?

Here are some crucial points I’ve determined over the years of being a reader, a writer, and now an author:

1. Don’t act superior. Meaning, don’t give the impression that your Christian characters (or Christian-esque, if your fiction has an allegorical religion) are “better” than those who aren’t. You’ll definitely send non-religious readers packing. Also, please don’t make your Christian characters perfect — stunningly beautiful, intelligent, excellent job, happy family, can stand in for Superman during a city-wide emergency. Not only is this totally unrealistic, it’s very discouraging. Readers like characters they can relate to — fictional people who drop pens, forget to feed their cat, cheated on their diet, skipped that math class, swore when they sprained their ankle. People who need the compassion of a Savior.

2. Don’t indicate a religious conversion will solve all of a character’s problems. Again, this never happens in real life. Plenty of people who go to church and pray and help old ladies across the street suffer from financial concerns, sickness, unemployment, addictions, have been divorced or broken up with their partner, lost a pet, or can’t find decent parking ever. And, once more, including bumps in the road in a fictional life makes for characters we can connect to — and if we see their faith help them through some of life’s crap, we might even want that aspect for ourselves.

hedgehog-animal-baby-cute-50577.jpeg

3. Make sure your character’s faith is at work in your pages. A narrator who tithes 12 and a half percent, never misses a Bible study, only exclaims, “Oh, drat,” when a deer runs into their car — and then is rude to shop clerks, berates a jaywalker, tells someone whose dog accidentally got off-leash they’re an idiot… Well, this type of narrator will make people throw your book at the wall. Readers will want to know more about a protagonist who apologizes to the jogger they yelled at the day before, who dumps a guy by text and can’t sleep afterwards, who buys lunch for a Goth kid that lost their wallet.

4. Embrace diversity. This is one I see a lot of Christian publishers edging away from, because the term “diversity” has gotten misaligned as a politically-hot-button issue, rather than the modern way we say “tolerance.” It goes directly against one of the instructions in the New Testament, to bring the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to people all over the world. That means different countries, different races, different religions, cultures, all of it. Even folks that think putting mayo on fries is an acceptable practice should hear the Messiah’s message.

These are just suggestions, remember. Ultimately, I can’t force anyone to write their story a certain way. But it’s been my experience that most non-Christians won’t read preachy Christian literature — and therefore could be missing out on the really important stuff.

pexels-photo-355288.jpeg

As a younger reader, at a point in my life when I wasn’t really sure what I believed spiritually, I was intensely dissatisfied with people who claimed Christians “shouldn’t” read fantasy, “couldn’t” learn about ancient religions or polytheistic cultures, and that basically everything that wasn’t specifically “Christian” was “wrong.”

All of this is a load of bunk. Setting yourself apart from the majority of readers in today’s Western society will not bring them the love and mercy of anyone.

This doesn’t mean I’m encouraging compromise on our part. Not when it comes to your morals and values. If you find it necessary to write text in which no one swears out loud, never graphically explains their sex life, and isn’t gratitiously violent, go you.

But don’t avoid the tough subjects, either. Christian-themed novels need conversations on racism, prejudice, bullying, child abuse, committing crimes, sexual misconduct, eating disorders, drug use, self-harm — all without being condescending to the characters who are going through it. 

We are all human, we all make mistakes, and we shouldn’t act like we’re better than someone who’s still struggling with the same burden we once bore. That is absolutely not the reason Jesus literally took up His cross for us.

So, that’s it for this time. Next time, I’ll be digging deeper still, into writing from the perspective of someone who wasn’t always a Christian, for believers and non-believers alike.

pexels-photo-532420.jpeg

 

health, reading, spiritual growth, writing

February Recap/March Look-Ahead

pexels-photo-164186.jpeg

Good morning! So, now that things have finally calmed down a bit and my life makes more sense, I can focus on mundane stuff like monthly recap blog posts.

As most of you are probably aware, my February was a rather intense mix of pain, suffering, struggling, despair, and a little bit of hope.

Okay, yes, I’m dramatizing, somewhat. But there were a lot of issues of valid concern that came to a head last month. Since this past summer, I’d been dealing with unexplained pain that came and went, and eventually it became constant and was growing worse. After seeing three different doctors — a primary care physician, two radiologists, and an OBGYN — finally a cause was suspected, and actual treatment planned out.

So on March 1st, I went under the knife (well, the laser and a very small actual knife — my incision is tiny, it’s amazing) to find out what was really going on. The bloodwork and ultrasounds I’d had ruled out a few things, but still hadn’t concretely established what was wrong, so the doctor needed to get a physical eye on my insides. It wasn’t terrible, it wasn’t great, but the anesthesia worked well, so I honestly don’t remember being in any discomfort during the procedure.

Afterwards, although sore, I started feeling better almost immediately. The blockage that had been created in my abdomen by endometriosis building up for probably months was at last gone. For the first time in ages, I am not in pain. I’m still a little tired (understandably), but I know that finally, finally I am on the road to healing.

IMG_0586

Because of doctor’s appointments and managing pain, not a lot of other stuff was accomplished in February. I was able to make some progress on Volume 3 (so, yes, it is coming along!), and I got a fair amount of reading done (especially at those times when I literally didn’t have the energy to do anything else).

While I was lying down more than usual, I did make some executive writing decisions.

My initial plan for How To Be A Savage is getting put on MASSIVE hold. Although I really like the concept, I simply don’t have the time this year to attempt starting it. I may actually scrap it altogether. After Volume 3, there’s Volume 4 to finish, and the field guide needs a bunch of work, and I promised White Fang we’d get started on our collaboration project this summer. And since it’s already March…

Also, I changed my mind about not writing a separate prequel for the series. Originally, I had considered it, thought about releasing it as a collection of short stories, debated making it part of the field guide, then basically had a meltdown over the whole idea. In the end, I opted to add a novella prequel to my ever-growing list of WIPs. Just, most likely not in 2018.

And I am not putting another addition on my TBR for the rest of the year. I have several library selections checked out right now, and there are such things as renewal limits, and fines. Somehow I’ve managed to get nearly halfway through my Goodreads challenge already, so there’s no shame whatsoever in slowing down.

pexels-photo-104373.jpeg

When you have a dilemmia with your health, it tends to put certain things in perspective. That has definitely been the case for me. As concerned as I am about promoting my books, because while sales aren’t everything, they are important, marketing is not more crucial than my well-being. So, since I need to take a break from the social media grind and concentrate on the actual creative process right now, I will be doing that, and leaving my sales in the Lord’s hands (which, truly, is where they always are, anyway).

My immediate treatment will hopefully only be medication, and they’re going to see how that goes. But there may still be an adjustment period to that, and plans may not work out. I’m optimistic, yet I remain practical and prepared for things to change, too.

My boys need me as well, and these last few weeks, worrying about how they’d fare if something serious happened to me, has been agonizing.

So, I officially don’t care about having an Instagram account, starting a YouTube channel, or putting together a newsletter. I’m grateful to have the loyal supporters I do on WordPress, Twitter and Goodreads, and won’t freak out if those numbers only climb slowly. Now is not the time to put myself under more pressure.

f944d-fantasy-girl-and-bird

Winter is hanging on, but now spring isn’t too far away, and I’m happy to have made it through this season.

I’m looking forward to what comes next, small potatoes and all.

0d16a-hd-cats-wallpaper-with-two-cats-in-the-grass-cats-wallpapers

family, Fantasy fiction, spiritual growth

Guest Post: Kyle Robert Shultz on The Magic Elephant in the Room

pexels-photo-220067.jpeg

Good morning, all. Today we will be joined by Kyle Robert Shultz, the #ShultzWithoutaC author of the Beaumont and Beasley fantasy series. Given that Mr. Shultz is spiritually and morally a churchgoing Christian, some may be surprised that he writes fantasy fiction, chock full of storybook magic, witches and wizards, and mythological creatures. All of this was part of what drew me to this author’s writing in the first place. As someone who believes in Jesus of Nazareth as a divine Savior, and tries to follow his teachings in everyday life, I got very fed up with being told that one cannot attend church on Sunday and read fantasy Monday through Saturday. With popular authors such as Ted Dekker and Carrie Anne Noble breaking this mold (and C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien never being off the bestseller lists in the past decade), I was very interested in connecting with like-minded writers in the indie publishing camp. So I asked Kyle to write about this subject for today’s post, and I’m actually going to use it to lead into a 2-part discussion on the topic later in March. So enjoy, and have a great day, everyone!

pexels-photo-735277.jpeg

The Magical Elephant in the Room by Kyle R. Shultz

In my experience, Christian writers of fantasy don’t like to discuss the thorny subject of magic. We either use it in our stories or steer clear of it, but we’re not inclined to get into a big debate about the ethics of *Anthony Head voice* SOSSERY. The conflict over the subject has been going on ever since Harry Potter first become popular in the 1990s. Much of the furor and book-burning has died down since then, but even today, if you write a novel that heavily features magic, you’re likely to get a review from a Christian reader which at least mentions it as a potential problem.

So, since this is still a relevant issue in 2018, I say we stop tiptoeing around it and and tackle it head on. Ready? Here we go. The basic argument from Christians against fictional magic is as follows:

  1. Real-world magic is wrong, according to the Bible (Leviticus 19:31, Deuteronomy 18:10-12, Galatians 5:20, Revelation 21:8).
  2. The Bible also tells us to do nothing that would cause another to stumble and commit sin, even if what we are doing seems innocent (Romans 14:21).
  3. Therefore, reading and writing stories involving magic is wrong because it might encourage someone to engage in real-life sorcery.

If we don’t accept the idea that real-world witchcraft is real or dangerous, than this argument is invalid. However, I don’t ascribe to the doctrine of cessationism. I believe that the supernatural forces described in the Bible–both good and evil–are just as real today as they were in ancient times. The Bible passages regarding witchcraft specifically refer to the practice of communing with pagan gods, similar to both the medieval notion of consorting with demons and the modern concept of neo-paganism (i.e. Wicca). These practices are not only idolatrous; they’re potentially harmful to the soul.

That being said, however, we need to get some definitions straight. Magic as defined by the Bible refers to both witchcraft (invoking pagan/demonic entities) and divination (foretelling the future through means other than consulting God, such as astrology). The definition of fictional magic is a lot broader. It’s a force that the characters harness to achieve their goals and to do things impossible in the natural world. Fictional magic may or may not bear similarities to the sorcerous practices that the Bible describes. The magic systems in the works of J.K. Rowling or Brandon Sanderson, for example, are generally no more demonic in nature than the metric system. They’re mechanical rather than spiritual. On the other hand, there are fictional works which veer too close to promoting actual paganism–Buffy the Vampire Slayer being one of the strongest examples.

pexels-photo-712398.png

Where, then, does this leave the Christian author? Presumably, due to our beliefs, we won’t be writing something that reads like a recruitment pamphlet for Wicca. But all the same, is it wrong for us to be writing about characters who cast spells, especially if we present such characters in a positive light?

The core of the problem lies in the reader’s awareness of the divide between fiction and reality. If an adult reader attempts to summon a demon into his or her living room after reading Harry Potter, Mistborn, or even the Bartimaeus Trilogy, the fault lies more with the reader than the author. It shouldn’t be the writer’s job to repeatedly remind adult readers that fiction is fiction. Child readers are another issue altogether, since young children don’t necessarily have the same grasp on what should and should not be mimicked. I have, in the past, been surprised by the level of occult content in books directed at younger readers, such as the Gatekeepers series by Anthony Horowitz or the Demonata books by Darren Shan. (That’s not an actual critique of the books, as I haven’t read more than a few pages of them–I’m just naming them as examples.) But while there are sometimes murky philosophical waters to be navigated in the Harry Potter novels, as well as occasional content that might be too frightening for some children, I still maintain that it’s highly unlikely the series will lure children into actual occult practices–especially if their parents have clearly explained the differences between real and fictional sorcery.

Assuming that actual paganism is not being endorsed, I don’t believe there’s a conflict between Christian faith and writing magic-heavy fantasy. Integral to the fantasy genre is the concept of other worlds, very different from our own. In this world, magic is dangerous and should be avoided. But in fiction, we journey through a vast multiverse of worlds where magic is not inherently evil. The stars in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia are sentient beings whose patterns inform centaurs of future events; our stars are not. The Potterverse contains people biologically capable of casting spells using wands and faux-Latin incantations, our universe does not. There is no reason for such distinctions to become muddled.

Furthermore, I don’t think Christians should act on a blinkered understanding of Biblical teachings about paganism to single out those who read or write books involving magic. Getting on that soapbox can damage the cause of Christianity by turning away non-believers who have an innocent love for the fantasy genre. What magic represents for many people is a power beyond the physical world; beauty and glory bursting in upon dull and colorless reality. To condemn this is to deny the very thing that we, as Christians, are meant to be offering those outside the faith. Let us not, in the effort to save people from some nebulous occult threat, steer them away from all the wonder of fantasy–a signpost on the way to embracing a very non-fictional God.

pexels-photo-704623.jpeg

spiritual growth, writing

Some Writing Tips I Take Issue With

Image result for candles

This may seem a little like splitting hairs, but there is a big debate brewing among certain writing/reading communities about what sort of faith-based fiction is “the best” or the “most appropriate.” And considering that I subscribe to a particular beliefs system, and it does affect how and what I write and read, I do feel that this debate will affect me. And that deciding where I stand on some of the more concerning topics is probably a wise plan.

There have been a lot of thoughts regarding this subject floating around my head the last several weeks. One: I totally think that typical “Christian fiction” has become way too categorized, unappealing to non-churchgoers, and really just “preaching to the choir.”

Two: I definitely think that it’s time for more Christian authors (meaning religion and lifestyle, not profession) to be writing “outside the box.”

Three: It’s more than beyond time for churchgoers of all denominations to stop telling writers of non-traditional genres (in the faith-marketing area) that what they’re doing is “wrong.”

Could some members of the Christian speculative fiction community please back me up here? I’m reading a lot of similar musings on your blogs and social media pages. And it’s helped me to feel that I’m not alone, and that has made me feel good.

Image result for candles

Here are some other “guidelines” I think we should be bending:

The idea that faith-based fiction can’t have anything truly horrible or horrifying or even minorly dastardly in it. Think all the sappy Hallmark movies rolled into one. All the time. Absolutely no hint of bad language or sin. Not only is it intensely unrealistic, it is extremely off-putting to non-religious folks. If you’re a writer with a specific code of conduct for your characters — even the sinners — then please stick to it. But it doesn’t need to be so strict that the worst thing that ever happens in your novel is the protagonist breaks a nail.

Readers will relate so much better to a narrator whose spouse has just been caught having an affair (and, no, you don’t have to provide all the sensual details to get the point across), or a secondary character who spent a few days in jail after getting a DUI. This is real life. And if you want readers to find hope in a story of redemption and mercy and personal growth, this type of plotline is a great place to start.

The idea that faith-based fiction can have all the terrible and terrifying things it wants as long as it promises the glory of salvation. Too far the other side of the coin. Personally, I don’t think showing all the various sorts of depravity the world has experienced/is experiencing, and indicating that the only way we’ll find true peace and happiness is after we die and go to Heaven, is going to win people to a spiritual cause. Nor do I feel it’s ethically or morally responsible, quite frankly.

Why can’t we have a balance, of some bad things happening, but there being enough good while we’re still alive on this planet, to help keep the characters going, and the readers, too? (Cue the famous-and-best-ever Samwise/Two Towers speech.)

Image result for candles

The notion that “true Christians” don’t ruminate on the dark and less-than-holy things of the world. Sorry, folks, but we do live in a fallen world — and how the heck are we going to explain the difference between the dark and the light if we don’t ruminate at least a little bit?! Whatever happened to the novels about a kid who lived a “bad” life — sex, drugs, juvie — then regretted his/her mistakes, and wanted to find a better way of living? Then a minister or angel in disguise meets them on the road when their car breaks down, and a message of hope and forgiveness gets woven into the story without being too preachy?

We truly need to have morally good characters — they go to church, they don’t smoke, they always recycle — that have a crisis of faith due to unfortunate circumstances. Or heroes that we know will do the right thing, but maybe they’re sometimes tempted to lie, or act on their attraction to a pretty girl, or consider getting drunk — but then they have this important moment of weighing the pros and cons and making a decision not to behave a certain way. Fictional people who mess up and try to learn from it are very easy to empathize with.

The concept that “true Christians” don’t ruminate on things like aliens, mythical creatures, other dimensions… Blah, blah, blah. I really cannot even with how ridiculous this is. How much of the Bible itself is devoted to unseen realms, dreams, miracles, visitations from angels, on and on?

C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien really broke the mold in their lifetime, and we need to be proud of following in their footsteps. There is so much benefit to seeking out things you can’t see in the natural world, don’t necessarily understand right away, and may even defy conventional explanation. Trust me on this.

Image result for candles

What do you think, my community? Anything to add to this slight diatribe?

Image result for candles