Friday, June 21, 2013

The Power of the Cross (Part One)

Prefatory Note: Due to the necessity of using concrete examples to illustrate my points, this two-part series contains mild spoilers on The Stonewycke Legacy trilogy by Michael Phillips and Judith Pella. 

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I have been thinking on something I said in one of my posts that deserves a little more explanation: 

"I tend to be a little skeptical of books that shove the alter call down the reader's throat as an obligatory thing. I shouldn't be, I know."

Certainly a startling statement in and of itself, and one that could easily be taken to mean that I wish the gospel would just be kept out of books altogether. That's certainly not what I intended to say, and since I don't really wish to make odd statements and leave others to try to decipher what I actually meant by them, I think it calls for a post in itself.

The question is namely, how should the gospel of Jesus Christ be included in fictional literature? We've all seen some good examples, and I'm sure we've all seen some bad ones. Today I want to discuss one side of the coin.

The Importance of Preaching the Gospel--the Right Way
As I said in one of my INCH sessions in May, Christ is the central reason and importance behind reading every book. He must be the center focus. We read to seek after the knowledge of Christ; to grow closer to him and his ways. That should be our hope and our joy.

And part of that is indeed sharing the gospel. After all, Christ has commanded us to share his salvation:

Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. --Luke 24:45-48

 He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. --Mark 16:15

 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”--Romans 10:14-15

Those who have the power of being able to formulate written words have been given a means of preaching the gospel through story and essay. And they should do so. Just because there is so much poor preaching of the gospel doesn't mean it shouldn't be attempted at all. We would be seriously neglecting our Christian duty and denying our Lord if we did so.

That being said, there is a wrong way to preach the gospel. Paul talks of this in 1 Corinthians 1:17:

 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

A Greek word study brings up some very interesting points. "Not with words of eloquent wisdom" means "not with human skill or intelligence or insight". And "emptied of its power" means to be made "unreal, ineffective, or pretentious" and "to render void; to be perceived as valueless". Many Christian books today are rendering Christ's work both unreal and valueless.

So why is that? Let's look at a specific example.

The Bad
One of the first books I read that left me with an uneasy feeling of poor gospel presentation was Michael Phillips and Judith Pella's Treasure of Stonewycke. The Stonewycke chronicles spanned six books over two different series, following the intriguing and well-written adventures of one Scottish family trying to keep their estate. Treasure of Stonewycke was the very last one. After all the trauma, the nail-biting, the heartbreak and glory and love and wonder, I was finally reaching the ultimate conclusion.

Then, in the middle of the last confrontation scene, Phillips and Pella interrupt the climax for a four page debate between two characters on the gospel of Christ. It was a mistake. Not only was it ineffectual for the characters debating it, but it was ineffectual for the reader as well. Much as we love the gospel, much as it has done for us, putting it in the middle of a climax scene will only make the majority of readers impatient for the preaching to be over, so they can get back to the main plot. Arrested action it's called, when people taught me how to plot something. Arrested action screams "interruption". Guess what happens with interruptions?

Well, do you like them?

In other words, Phillips and Pella, with the best of intentions, rendered the gospel ineffective for the majority of their readers because they put it in the wrong place. As funny as this is going to sound, the Gospel should generally be a sub-plot. Here's why:

 When I attended Angela Hunt's workshop on story plotting during a writing conference, she explained that every book can be categorized into one of two plot types: 

-Masculine plots emphasize attaining the goal--winning the war, marrying the fair lady, catching the thief, etc.

-Feminine plots have a goal, but the goal emphasizes growth and change of the protagonist’s character.

 The Phillips/Pella series has masculine plots. Who is going to keep the estate? Is Maggie ever going to be reunited with her husband? Will Allison and Logan reconcile? Will they ever find their daughter? In other words, each book has a tangible goal that the reader wants the characters to accomplish.  As much as each of them draws closer to Christ, the character growth is a sub-plot--a result that came from them trying to achieve their goal.

That's where the sharing of the gospel in Treasure of Stonewycke went sour. All of a sudden, the masculine plot that the characters had been working to achieve became a sub-plot, and the character growth hijacked the main plot. Most readers don't like what they've been following all along to be suddenly relegated to second importance in the climax scene. In this instance, the gospel of Christ was emptied of its power.
The Good
But let's rewind two books to Stranger at Stonewycke, where Phillips and Pella do a pretty good job of incorporating the salvation experience. Stranger Logan MacIntyre has caught wind of a treasure at Stonewycke, where his great-uncle lived as a servant in former days. Determining to seek out this treasure for himself, Logan befriends the family at the estate while at the same time seeking to swindle them. The story goes on, the tension escalates, and the main conflict is "Will he be able to find their treasure without them knowing, and before another claimant tries to kill him?"

Logan's not a Christian, so part of the  story is of his character growth and recognizing his need for a Savior. His twinges of conscience only serve to escalate the tension of the masculine plot--the treasure seeking--while at the same time giving the reader something to think about.

Here's where the authors did it well:

Perhaps some people would read Stranger at Stonewycke thinking that Logan reached a moral revelation is in the middle of the climax scene. What's the big deal, you say? The same thing happened as in Treasure of Stonewycke. But not really. Instead of cramming the gospel story into four pages just before the gun is about to be fired as in the latter book, Phillips and Pella do all the necessary theological groundwork throughout the build-up of the story. Then, after the final confrontation and before all the fireworks have burned down, Logan reaches his spiritual climax as well. Nothing is interrupted. The reader isn't impatient for the authors to hurry up and get on with it. Logan has played his last card, and he can't do any more unless God works something out beyond his smarts and strength.

And we are satisfied. 

Because the Gospel of Christ involves intimate internal thought, it should generally always be a sub-plot, so as to retain its subtlety while teaching the reader. But it's a sub-plot, not a scene. Therefore, instead of being shoved in at the end, it should be a traceable journey throughout, so that the sub-plot climaxes at the same time as the main plot does. In this way, the delicate balance of showing the reader how a person's heart can change comes out with grace and power.

Today we've looked at one example of how the gospel can be emptied of its power by wrong placement in a story, and how it can be used to great effect at just the right point. Next time we're going to look at another way the gospel can be emptied of its power, namely through obligatory over-use. There's a lot to unpack in that statement, but I'll save it for Tuesday. :)

Have a splendid weekend, and God bless your reading adventures!

Lady Bibliophile


  1. Wonderful post! I really enjoyed it! :D
    I agree, people don't like it when you push the gospel message down their throats. It loses it's power.
    Can't wait for Tuesday's post!

    1. Thank you very much, Sister. :) I hope you enjoy tomorrow's post!

      Love and cuddles,

  2. Good post! :) If I were to re-state your point here, I would say that the Gospel may be taught in two basic different ways: told through sermon or shown through story (like the difference between fiction and non-fiction). If you are writing a story, you should not insert a sermon. Instead, you should weave your arguments or themes organically into the story itself, so that the truth you're trying to convey comes across in the plot, not as a sermon given by one character to another.

    It does so irk me when people think they have to shoehorn a sermon into their story; to me, it suggests that they still believe stories are an inferior way of communicating truth to non-fiction.

    Looking forward to the next post :D.

    1. Right. That's the beauty of Tolkien, for instance. His themes are so strong in his writing that you simply have to get it, but he doesn't knock you over the head with it. Even MacDonald, who has more undisguised Scriptural teaching than most stories do, does it in an engaging way.

      "Shoehorning in sermons"...that's all tomorrow morning. :)

      "it suggests that they still believe stories are an inferior way of communicating truth to non-fiction"

      Yes indeed, I know some people who hold to that view.

      It is one of the crosses I have to bear...

  3. Dear Lady B.,

    Thank you for this post. It is certainly a crucial subject for Christian readers and authors, and too little discussed.
    I have seen, unfortunately, far too many examples of awkward Gospel-insertions in the middle of stories, obviously contrived and put in by rule. Inadvertently they bring across the false message that Christianity and "the rest of life" are not compatible: that Christ makes a nice addition to one's goals and dreams, but is merely another "good thing", equal to earthly priorities. Rather He should be the activating spring of everything we do, the foundation of all we believe, and the root of our every passion.
    If an author is truly writing to glorify God rather than to satisfy his or her own desires (pleasure, ambition), I think some of these pitfalls will be automatically avoided. Yet in some cases it may be merely a matter of maturity in writing.
    There is a place, too, for the type of story in which the truth of the Gospel is not spoken explicitly, but woven into the fabric of the tale. Some books have had a strong impact on my walk with God without once using His name. Such books ought not be the main diet of a Christian reader, but a book need not be shunned as "un-Christian" simply because it does not mention Christ. A story can speak volumes without words, you might say, just as music is able to move the heart even without lyrics. And if the story is written by an author with a Christian worldview, it can deliver powerful truth even if the Gospel is never presented outright. (Much of the Old Testament is a wonderful example of that kind of storytelling: it never sits you down to explain the redemption story from beginning to end, but the redemption story is never absent. It is tucked in every corner, pictured in characters and events, foreshadowed with symbolism, and prophesied repeatedly.)
    Your post was most thought-provoking...another one of those issues I have sensed thumping around somewhere in the back of my mind and never took the time to reason through. Thank you!

    ~The Philologist

    1. Dear Philologist,
      "Rather He should be the activating spring of everything we do, the foundation of all we believe, and the root of our every passion."

      Indeed. That is so important, and as hard as I try, I find it extremely difficult to bring across in writing. Perhaps it is something that requires time, or more thought. But yes, we see this often in today's culture: people separate the "sacred" and the "secular", when everything we do from the most formal worship to the most everyday task should be as unto Christ, not separate from him.

      George MacDonald said it best in "The Marquis of Lossie":

      "But do you not sometimes find it hard to remember God all through your work?" asked Clementina.

      "Not very hard, my lady. Sometimes I wake up to find that I have been in an evil mood and forgetting him, and then life is hard until I get near him again. But it is not my work that makes me forget him. When I go a-fishing, I go to catch God's fish; when I take Kelpie out, I am teaching one of God's wild creatures; when I read the Bible or Shakespeare, I am listening to the word of God, uttered in each after its kind."

      And Malcolm is a very wise fellow. I highly recommend him to your attention. :) Not sure that Shakespeare is quite on an equal level with Scripture as he puts it, but I get what he's trying to say.

      Very good point, about the portrayal of the gospel in the OT! And so, so true. Many people try to moralize and present it as a chronicle of history and character lessons, when it really is meant to point straight to Jesus Christ. :)



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