Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Sinners We Love--Fantine

Due to the mature themes explored in this blog post, if you are not familiar with the story of Les Miserables, I would strongly recommend it for ages 15 and up, or bringing it to an adult to scan through first. 

To read my review of the full book of Les Miserables, click here: (Part One, Part Two, Part Three

I dreamed a dream in time gone by
When hope was high,
And life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die
I dreamed that God would be forgiving.
Then I was young and unafraid
And dreams were made and used and wasted
There was no ransom to be paid
No song unsung, no wine untasted.
But the tigers come at night...
-Les Miserables Musical

When I first began my series on Les Miserables, the book, I had every intention of delving quite extensively into Fantine's story and themes. Alas, the space I had allotted to the entire book quickly ran out, and didn't allow for a proper evaluation of her, so I merely touched on her in passing and bookmarked the idea for a later date. Today, at last, I can talk about her to my heart's content. 

For those of you who read Les Miserables, and are somewhat wary of any article I might write on Fantine, be assured that it is my intention to deal gently with her, and kindly, without excusing the sin to be found in her life. I approach this post with some fear and trembling, due both to the absolute horror of her life, and the nature of what I mean to say. Fantine is perhaps the best-loved sinner on earth right now, and I don't want to be heartless in my portrayal of her.  Please come and give it a fair try; I promise not to be either harsh or unduly dogmatic in my assessment of her. This is, after all, a series on the sinners we love--and why we love them in the first place. Readers who love Fantine are amply justified in doing so--and while I pick a point with reading Les Miserables in the first place, it isn't Fantine that my problem is with.

Her Story
Fantine, of course, is well known for getting thrown out of the factory where she works, because she's a single mother, and struggling to find the money to support herself and her child afterwards. It's heart-wrenching--she can't keep her child with her, so she gives Cosette to a wicked couple pretending to be good caregivers, and as she never has the money to come see her child for herself, she doesn't suspect all their kind words and appeals for money are a trick. To give her credit, she does everything she can before she takes a more questionable profession-- she takes up sewing, and sews a great deal to make both ends meet. She sells her two front teeth, which are hers to sell, and all she has to make money. Then she sells her hair, a common practice and not one to be condemned, however hard it is to see her sink to such grief and misery. These are none of them sins. They're a sad commentary on the state of the church, and how little help it actually gave to the destitute in that time. 

But then, when Fantine is all out of options, she does the last thing she can: she sells herself into a life of prostitution.

The cheers that go up when Valjean bring her out of this horrible existence are well-merited. She's a broken women, desperately in need of grace--and the redemption she is given rings true to the redemption that we find for ourselves, sold into a life of sin, and given escape through the work of Jesus Christ. 
Why We Love Her

Fantine is commonly used by advocates of social justice as an example of the oppression of woman. Women should never have to sell themselves to keep their children alive. Do we love her because she was oppressed, and wounded and used? Maybe. I don't think so, though. The majority of us reading Les Miserables have no personal experience of those things; it's a faraway, hazy world to us, and though we look at it with pity and horror, we certainly don't personally identify with it.
We really identify with the musical Fantine, more than the book. After all, the book Fantine never discussed her broken dreams so eloquently. It's her dead dream of a happy life that we are sorry for--dreams are such fragile, elusive, glorious things that take us up to the heights of heaven or down to the pits of hell in our pursuit of them--sometimes they take us to both places. Because there are so many people with dreams that have been killed, and they are  hurting for the loss, we have ample personal experience in that side of Fantine's feelings.
It's the loss of hope. When we see Fantine without hope, we want to take her up and hug her and wipe away her sin and sorrow and give her a second chance at life. Because, especially as Christians, there is no sorrow like seeing people without hope when they have a Savior available to them.

Whether or Not We Should

Now that we've laid the groundwork, let's evaluate and see whether our love of her is a well-merited one, or perhaps needs a little re-evaluation. First of all, let me begin with a question: 

Why did she lose her dream? 

Think on that for a moment. Was it due to the oppression of a heartless society who refused to hire a women with an illegitimate baby? No. Not to excuse their sin; they should have been there to lift her out of the pit she found herself in. But that's not why she lost it. 

She lost it because her dream was one of sin. And dreams of sin are always turned into a living horror, just like she found out. 

Her sin didn't start with the prostitution. I'm not even going attempt to critique that, because it's a weighty subject and I don't want to be unduly cruel by saying "She should never have done such a thing, no matter what." I believe that every sin is avoidable, but I also understand that we are weak, and when life gets so dark that we struggle for our mere existence, sometimes we don't always make clear moral judgments. God is compassionate, and remembers that we are dust. Fantine had no protector, no advisor, and to give her justice, she didn't enter into prostitution for her own sake or pleasure. She did it to keep her child alive. Again, I'm not excusing it, but I do understand her reasoning behind it.

However, she did commit a sin that we often gloss over in the first place, and since the purpose of this article is to better understand the true redemption of her life, we must first start with the sin that she could not possibly be excused for: the sin of fornication. Fantine was lover to a man in her girlhood, in an age and a culture where being a mistress was hardly wrong. We read her story in an age when there are plenty of illegitimate babies in the church itself. I think our shock at this sin has lessened a bit over the years simply because we're exposed to so much of it. And we don't even blink when Fantine finds herself with child because, number one, classic literature is full of it, and number two, many of us know, and are related to, someone who has committed the same sin. 

It was her first love affair, as we have said; she had given herself to this Tholomyes as to a husband, and the poor girl had a child. --Volume 1, Book 4, Chapter 1
This is where her downfall begins. God will not be mocked: a man reaps what he sows. (Galatians 6:7) And sometimes in our sympathy with her attempts to provide for her child, we forget one very important thing: if Fantine was the woman she was supposed to be, she would never have had the child in the first place. Cosette wouldn't have existed. 

Poor Marius.

It would be very boring, unrealistic, and unbiblical to write stories in which characters never sin. Lovable people do sin. People do have children out of wedlock. But sometimes we hate the fact that the character has to undergo the consequences rather than the fact that the character committed the sin itself.

Back to the question: Why did Fantine lose her dream? Well, first we have to look at what her dream was in the first place.

I realize the book and the song are two different things, but take for a moment the lyrics to this well-loved piece. 

I dreamed that love would never die.

Fantine dreamed that human love was worth so much, she could give herself as a lover to a man instead of going through the holy act of marriage. 

I dreamed that God would be forgiving. 
 And since love was worth so much, she also dreamed that it would have no consequences, because love was justification in itself. 

 Accordingly, in Les Misérables we see Hugo demonstrating his belief that human beings are not totally depraved. Instead, they have the capacity for moral goodness in and of themselves. It is only through forces outside of them that this innate innocence can be lost.--Toby J. Sumpter

We can see this attitude in Fantine herself: 

 But the tigers come at night/With their voices soft as thunder/As they tear your hopes apart/As they turn your dreams to shame.
She doesn't realize that it's not because of her sin that she's suffering--she thinks it's due to the 'tigers' of society, throwing her out of her work because of their legalistic ideas about good women and purity. 

Fantine is a heroine because she meant well, tried to do her best, and died suffering brutal mistreatment — even though she had started a fight in the factory (but she was provoked) and did let that man have her for money (but she was desperate)...Valjean and Fantine and Cosette and the revolutionaries are all innocent victims of their circumstances, and they meant well and did their best and died trying to be good and since their good deeds and good intentions and good attitudes outweigh the few (unavoidable) sins, they get to go to heaven at the end.--Toby J. Sumpter
Again, let me reiterate that the inclusion of Fantine's sin isn't a problem. You can make a biblical, redemptive story about a single mother who sinned and found grace. Fantine bore a child out of wedlock and sold herself for money. Well, there were plenty of prostitutes in literature that God incorporated into the line of the Messiah himself. Look at Rahab--she too, was given grace and forgiveness. Nor is it wrong to love Fantine: she's pretty lovable, and her sufferings are heart-wrenching.  It would be in the character of Javert to throw her outside in the dust, and none of us should really be like Javert--he took law entirely too far. I'm glad Valjean found her and rescued her and gave her wounded heart healing and hope. Bravo, and well done on his part.

 I Dreamed a Dream is not the song of a woman who was unduly tormented by society. It's the song of a woman who dreamed that she could enjoy the pleasures of sin, and then had to face the sobering consequences of her choice. One sin always leads to another, and had she kept her principles in the case of Tholomyes, she would never have had to sell it the men she didn't even know.

In spite of her sin, she's also a picture, when properly understood, of our relationship to Christ. We start off with a sin because we cannot say no to our desire. None of us can, in the futility of our sin. We are just as broken as Fantine is, and just as in need of an outside power to lift us out of our mercy. The only slight difference--Hugo excuses sin because it's society that makes us lose our innocence. God doesn't excuse our sin. It's dirty and wicked and heinous. But he takes it away, and gives us the righteousness of his Son as a free and unmerited gift.
So in the end, what's the point I'm trying to draw from Fantine's story?

Sinners in literature must be given "informed grace". 

An odd phrase, informed grace, but a good one. 

Is it wrong to love Fantine? Absolutely, positively not.We can love sinners who should have chosen differently.  We can love them during their sin--because after all, while we were still sinners, Christ loved us, and gave Himself up for us. He didn't wait until we were good to love us.

We must however, be absolutely positively sure that in our love, we don't give her empty grace--just because they suffered hurt for their sin, like Fantine did. We don't give Fantine free grace because she had the motive of providing her child when she became a prostitute. We must be fully aware that she is suffering the results of her choices, and reaping the harvest that she has sown.

We can't give her empty grace, and pretend that her sin was justified. But in every case where we love a sinner, we can give them informed grace--a free forgiveness, not in excuse of their sin, but in spite of it. Empty grace glosses over our sin and makes light of it. Informed grace acknowledges our sin and provides a way of escape.

 Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. -James 1:12-15

Fantine's desire gave birth to sin, and sin brought death to her--death of hope, death of virtue, and ultimate death as well. In spite of that, she found a measure of hope before she died, because one man took the responsibility of her sin, and brought her out of it.We love her because we understand the grace that she was given. And I hope that perhaps this blog post has helped challenge those of us who love her to give her the right grace. A full and free pardon, rather than an excuse of her wrongdoing.

And not only her, but all the sinners we love.

Lady Bibliophile

P.S. Junior B and I made this for all of you during our trip to WA. :)

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Sinners We Love--Rochester

The following post contains great spoilers on the story of Jane Eyre, so read at your own risk. All sections containing major plot spoilers will be clearly marked. If you haven't yet read the book or seen the movie, you would probably be happier to save the spoilers for full gratification later on. ;)
Rochester may be an obvious choice for a sinner who obviously needs some repentance, but as he's a non-controversial sinner, and easier to get a grip on than most, I thought I would start off with him and get my bearings. Besides, he's a textbook illustration of just how a wicked man should be handled. And he holds the double advantage of being sinner and villain in one--after all, Mr. Rochester was his own and Jane's worst enemy, and the woman in the attic could hardly be blamed for all the heartbreak that occurred.

To set the scene for those of you who don't know the man:

Jane Eyre, plain school teacher and sole provider for herself, determines to better her position in life by taking up the occupation of governess. When a letter arrives offering her the tutelage of a little French girl at Thornfield Hall, Jane travels far from all the people she has ever known and soon finds herself face to face with Thornfield's master, and our example of choice for today.

An unmarried master, we might add. He's supposed to be plain, but nobody really believes that now, do they?

Edward Fairfax Rochester is a man disappointed with life, who swears, snaps, and scowls with a vengeance, and expects everybody to run at his beck and call. This is generally the point where most of us start falling in love with him, and certainly those who don't can't hold out very long. He's rude to his housekeeper, and holds his young French ward at arm's length, considering children to be a great bother and nuisance. A really nice fellow--or not quite.

Jane soon finds out that general incivility isn't the full extent of his problems. In a moment of rare revelation, he tells her about his past life: containing not one mistress, but three. A Celine, a Giacinta, and a Clara, all wearied of and discarded in their turn; taken up as an experiment to find his ideal woman. Not only that, but the little French girl, Adele, is quite possibly his child by Celine, and though he doesn't know for sure, he has taken her care and education upon himself.

He's not repentant in the least for any of these offences at the time we learn of them, and though Jane can't help but disapprove, she doesn't chastise him too severely; indeed, after that occurrence she promptly falls in love with him, forsaking the evidences of good judgment that she's shown thus far, and in our sympathy with Jane, we don't really blame her.

 *Following section contains major spoilers*

 The course of true love never does run smooth when one of the parties hides the full extent of their sin, however, and at the point when they're standing at the altar ready to be married, Jane discovers that Rochester isn't only a little loose in regards to his morals with women; he's downright wicked. After all, you have to be pretty far gone to attempt to marry one woman when you're already married to another. When his secret is out, he makes every attempt to persuade her to become another mistress just like the ones before her, swearing that he will love her always and they will seize their chance of happiness.

*end of major spoilers*

After Jane makes the decision to leave Mr. Rochester, we can finally see the master-stroke that Bronte has been playing all this time. Not every author can get the reader to identify with the choices the main character makes, but Bronte did with a vengeance, and still does years after the book came out. First we're rather wary of Rochester, but we come to love him as quickly as Jane did, and in the end, we make the same reluctant consent to leave him behind. And just as she harbors a secret ache and hope that somehow a way will be reconciled for them to come together, so we have that secret hope for her. Because after all, a life of love with Mr. Rochester is certainly a happier outcome than the duty of the doing to right thing and living as a country school-mistress.

Jane loved him, and left him, and then Bronte adds another twist to the agony in making her choose between seeming religious duty and human affection. She's a capable and intelligent woman. A suitor burning with religious fervor comes her way, and asks her to be his wife and journey with him to India, where they will bring the Gospel to the heathen there.

What can she say, and what can we say? I only know that when I first read Jane Eyre, I hated St. John Rivers with every ounce of passion in me, and though I couldn't lay my finger on it, I knew something had to be wrong with his request. But how can one refuse a pressing invitation to become a Christian missionary? There is no right way to refuse.

That was torture. Not only to refuse a man who it would be wrong to love, but then to face accepting a man who it would be wrong not to love. No author should be so cruel.

Story-wise, I'll stop there, so as not to spoil anything, but after the emotional turmoil had burned down, and I thought about it for a month or two, I drew a few important things about loving sinners from the classic story.

1. Sinners always use self-justification.
Writers are often taught, in the study of villains, that we must make them real. Don't just have them do the wrong thing, teachers say. Make them have a reason for why they don't do the right thing. Otherwise the reader will be left with a skeptically raised eyebrow, and absolutely no sympathy for them whatsoever.
Rochester is a master at self-justification: "You see how the case stands--do you not? After a youth and manhood, passed half in unutterable misery and half in dreary solitude, I have for the first time found what I can truly love--I have found you. You are my sympathy--my better self--my good angel...
I should have appealed to your nobleness and magnanimity at first, as I do now--opened to you plainly my life of agony--described to you my hunger and thirst after higher and worthier existence--shown to you, not my resolution (that word is weak), but my resistless bent to love faithfully and well, where I am faithfully and well loved in return. "

Oh yes, he can do it most eloquently.

There are, however, two types of self-justification, and when we evaluate the villains, it's a wise exercise to try to discern which type an author is using. Either the character will justify themselves, but it will still be obvious to everyone that they made the wrong life choices (like Rochester) or they will justify themselves so that the sin is no longer sinful.

Rochester may be a villain, and we may like him in spite of it, but at least Bronte never makes us sympathize with his sin, however much we sympathize with the man himself. One point scored for the way sinners ought to be portrayed.

2. It is not always obligatory to like the self-absorbed angel over the sympathetic sinner.
Which many of you knew. But for the sake of those readers out there like me, it is quite all right to dislike St. John Rivers, in spite of his religious fervor to go on the mission field and convert the heathen. He was a manipulative man and controlled people through guilt. I don't blame him, because he had no malicious intent in doing so, but he was wrong to try to make Jane come with him all the same.

Having a proper perspective of villains doesn't mean we mustn't like them at all. Rochester was a lot more interesting than St. John, and a great deal more intelligent, if I can be excused for saying so. I am far from remorseful that I wanted the latter to win out over the former. There is just a much good in staying behind to save one broken man from a life of sin as there is in saving hundreds from their ignorant state, and I think the reader unconsciously identifies that concept when they about Jane's dilemma, however hard it is to put it into words.

Point two scored for Bronte. Sinners, however wicked, are worth saving.

3. Sinners need to suffer.
Sinners need to suffer during their sin and after their sin. Even after repentance, scars still exist, and handicaps are still in evidence. Rochester suffered a great deal of mental anguish and love lost before he acknowledged his punishment was just, and even after he came to a more repentant frame of mind, he still had the physical handicaps that would stay with him his life-long as a reminder. In the end, it would be wrong to bring a sinner to repentance without any consequences for their deeds. After all, grace does not neutralize the effects of sin. But it does save us from the ultimate consequence of eternal separation. Bravo again.

4. Grace is always satisfactory.
The mercy and justice of God, when properly portrayed, as they are in Jane Eyre, are great enough and wide enough and deep enough to satisfactorily cleanse a man from his wrong-doing. No sinner is outside of God's ability to redeem. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, and in the end, it should always be our desire to see them come out right rather than perish in their sin. Happy endings are legitimate and valuable things. Leaving the sinner in despair isn't the highest aim.  After all, Jesus Christ came to lift us out of the miry pit and lead us to a cleansed and rejuvenated life in him. A little scarred, perhaps, depending on the depths to which we sank before our eyes were opened. But rejoicing in his grace nonetheless.

And Jane Eyre is really most satisfactory on the grace scale. :) I think Bronte did perhaps the best job I've read of a true sinner meeting with the appropriate consequences, and coming to a properly redemptive conclusion.

That's all for today, friends and fellow bibliophiles! On Tuesday, we'll be discussing a well-loved female sinner who received grace--but who's grace needs a little bit of explaining for a proper understanding of it. She, in fact, is the reason behind this series' existence.

Lady Bibliophile

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Sinners We Love (and Whether or Not We Should)

If you recall, back in the end of April/early May, my readers were so kind as to take a poll regarding which series they wanted to see next on My Lady Bibliophile. Winning by a surprising 50% was "When Bibliophiles Play" and play we did for a couple of weeks. Garnering nearly half of the remaining votes was "The Sinners We Love". It is my pleasure to present to you today, the first post in this brand new series. I expect it to be great fun, and it will run for at least a couple of weeks. Plans are still up in the air as to whether I shall do it on Tuesdays, or continue it straight through until I am done, but doubtless I shall be able to decide by the time Friday's post comes around. :)
Today, we're going to look at the ethics behind loving the bad boys and girls in our favorite novels. (Let's face it, sometimes those villains are a great deal more fun than the heroes.) The purpose of sinners in literature, how far to take our admiration, and why we love them so much. In future posts we'll be taking specific sinners both male and female and putting them under the microscope as to their motives, and whether or not Christian bibliophiles should really harbor admiration for them. Some will be wicked. Some will be weak. Some will merely be misguided. All can be classified specifically as "Sinners"--the moral outcasts of the books we read. (Note that sinners and villains are two different things; and doubtless we'll be covering both.)

If you would like to submit a sinner or villain that you harbor a secret admiration for, I would love to feature a post on them, providing, of course, that I've read about them. :)

Today I'm going to discuss the negative aspects of loving villains. But please don't think that loving the bad guys is all wrong; that will be covered in an end-cap post to finish this series: today we focus more on the 'villain' end of things, as I'm purposely saving the idea of loving 'sinners' until later.

The Purpose of Moral Outcasts
In the age of Edward Cullen, when vampires are in vogue as the world's next best hero, villains have somewhat displaced the great and shining Mr. Darcys from our public attention. Those of us who have read myriads of novels find ourselves slipping into an unhealthy fascination with the underworld, because authors are increasingly spending more and more time giving their bad guys empathetic characteristics.  We want to know: what makes them choose a path of wrongdoing, when obviously the path of right is so much happier?

In fact, when we really take a close look at the prevailing opinions of our modern culture, bad guys aren't really bad any more. They always have an excuse. A redeemable motive. A plausible escape route that allows them to flee the consequences of their bad behavior. And lest we chalk it all down to modern authors, it's not always the writing that's changing, but a good deal of it lies in our perception of the books we read. All moral judgments in a book are not only affected by the time the author wrote it in, but also the time the reader read it in.

Today, we're taught that morals are relative, and standards of truth adapt according to the situation we find ourselves in. It's no wonder, then, that we're confused as to the real meaning of the terms villain and hero. Now, 'villain' means any sickeningly virtuous fellow who has the audacity to resist the temptation to do wrong. 'Hero' means anyone who bucks the trend, can't help their wickedness just like the next man, and shouldn't be punished too harshly for the nature that they were created with.

Every book that has moral outcasts (i.e. sinners and villains) puts them in for one of two motives: either they're showing a clear picture of God's judgment on sin, or they're redeeming sin itself.

Well-written stories containing sinners must have either repentance or judgement. And I don't wish to come across harshly when saying this, but there are no other options that Christian bibliophiles can biblically approve of. The soul that sins shall die. The man or woman that does not come to repentance in Jesus Christ shall be eternally separated from the Father in Hell. No matter how sinned against; no matter what the provocation, if they break God's law, then they are separated from Him.

And in the end, we're all sinners, aren't we? That's why it's not necessary to have only judgment, always. Sometimes the sinner doesn't get the consequences they deserve, and that's perfectly right and acceptable, because they have the mercy of redemption given to them, and they are given a new chance to start afresh.

Either we judge the sinner, or we redeem the sinner. That's the purpose of putting sinners in literature in the first place: because they all must lead to a picture of God's law and His grace, so that in our reading we are pointed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In the end, the sins  committed are just as ugly and inexcusable as they were in the beginning of the book. We never redeem the sin. We redeem the sinner.  But more on that in a later post.

Why We Love Villains
Any writer who takes plotting and characterization will have it drilled into them that villains should not be completely evil. This point is up for debate, and perhaps we'll return to it later; suffice it to say for now that the next generation of writers is almost making the villain a parallel hero, instead of an antagonist. We have in our stories the hero of good and the hero of evil. Take your pick, and say your pleasure as to which you prefer. No longer are the days of such books as A Lost Pearle, where Addison Cheetham could be completely rotten and demoralized. Oh, no. Now we're treading the delicate minefield of reader sympathies and plausibility, where we can't dare paint our pictures too black and white, for fear of being accused of insensitivity.

In this age of moral ambiguity, we would give an escape route and redeemable motive for the Fall of Satan himself.

We play free with villains; we're not obligated to have them make the right response, so we pour our energies into making them witty intellectuals or tortured victims, and give them all the personality that we feel wouldn't be quite right in our heroes. Heroes are all they're supposed to be; villains are all we want them to be.

I always applaud a good villain, who does their job well and smartly too. Sometimes that loves gets a little convoluted, though. One villain I loved in spite of his sin, and still do on my off-days, is James Steerforth, from Charles Dickens' David Copperfield. He's a regular Mr. Wickham in his morals and his manners. Smooth, good-natured, sympathetic and seemingly selfless, by the end of the book he had broken the hearts of  numerous characters, mistreated two women, and betrayed the friend who thought so much of him. Only thing was when he *SPOILER* perished in the prime of life *END OF SPOILER* I didn't think of it as a just reparation for a life of wicked choices; I thought it was a mighty heartless action on the part of Dickens to give such a fate to my favorite character. I loved James Steerforth from beginning to end of that book, and no matter what he did I could have excused him for it and welcomed him back. Which is a scary thought, because if I had been a character, I very likely would have been little Emily, who sacrificed her virtue for a gentleman's smile and a few kind words.

In the end it comes down to this: do we love villains because of who they could be, or because of who they are? Villains can have beautiful personalities, delightful quirks, and wicked good senses of humor. It's not wrong to love the right: a lot of evil characters do have some laudable qualities. Nor should standards of right ever sacrifice quality. Heroes need to be interesting. It's really not fair to put a living villain next to a plastic hero and expect the reader to like right over wrong in that instance.

But when we harbor love for the bad people, do we look at them and say "See how beautiful this quality could be used for good?" Or do we harbor a secret hope that they will always stay as they are in their sin? Do we blame their wickedness on their own actions, and their own depraved choices, or is it hinted, however softly and briefly, that God made them that way, so they shouldn't be held responsible for it?

 Many more points to come. A lot more information to cover. Certainly not all villains should be redeemed, and we haven't even touched on the sinners yet. But today's point to take away: do our favorite villains have a law system they are held accountable to? It's essential that they should, if the author is trying to build a biblical portrayal of right and wrong.

Why do you love villains? And whom are some of your favorites?

Lady Bibliophile

Friday, July 19, 2013

Why Should We Read?

The following post is part of a talk I gave at the MI homeschool convention in May of this year. During my talk I wanted to explain to people not only how to read with Christian discernment, but also why we read in the first place.

Photo Credit

Why do we read?  

Certainly every book lover comes up against this question at some point. Why do I read? Why do I love these these stories? What benefit do they serve? Is it really glorifying and serving God to read about the knight saving the fair maiden and the good king prevailing at the end of a long and bloody combat?

We all answer this question in similar ways. "I'm reading a story that illustrates courage," we say, "or sacrificial love", or "family ties". In essence, we pull out character qualities that are worthy of imitation and use those as our reason for justifying the particular story we pick up. But whether we are reading fiction or nonfiction or biography, book-lovers crave affirmation of their passion. Certainly there are many people who consider reading a waste of time--an alternate reality that cannot compare to real life activities. But for the bibliophile, reading is something more. It's a thirst, zeal, similar to that a musician feels when listening to a piece of music they want to play, or an artist feels looking at a landscape they would love to paint.  It's a love that's hard to explain. And we know instinctively, though we find it hard to put into words, that reading books is important--vital to our mental and spiritual well-being.

We need a defensible and biblical explanation of why we read. Biblical apologetics apply to much more than science and theology and practical living. It applies to every area of life: fiction included.  And we need to do more than recognize our love for reading. We need to study it, to make it a God-honoring love.
In Colossians 2:1-5 we read a key foundation for why reading is so vital. Paul writes: "For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments. For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ."

Our goal as Christians should be to know the Christ who died for us. To know him better and deeper all the days of our life. When we read, our reason should be to know Christ.
John 1:1 says that "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Christ chose to reveal himself to us with his physical presence, but also with the use of language and words. Time and again he told his messengers to write his words down with ink and paper, that the truth he gave them might be preserved forever. Written books that conform to biblical standards and laws are preserved statements of truth.

Very well then, books in themselves are biblically defensible, but what about fiction? To answer this question, we look again at a specific phrase in Colossians. "In Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." I did a little word study using the helps on a Bible website I utilize quite often, and found some interesting information. The Greek word for knowledge here is gnosis, a feminine noun derived from /inṓskō, which means to "experientially know"-- a functional or working knowledge gleaned from personal experience, which connects the theory to the application.

Fiction helps connect the theory to the application of that theory. Jesus did this many times in Scripture. With the parable of the prodigal son, the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the tax-collector, and the parable of the Good Samaritan, he used story to connect the head-knowledge to the heart-knowledge. In the Old Testament we see Nathan telling a story to convict David of his sin, and God told the Israelites not only to pass on the principles they were to live by, but also the stories from their history in which His grace and power was show.

When we read fiction, we are also exercised in an important skill that all Christians need to know. Another purpose of gaining knowledge or reading is "that no one may delude us with plausible arguments"--or in other words, philosophies that go against the principles and character of God.  It's easy to distinguish false knowledge in a philosophy text. But when real people are deluded or trying to delude us, it's generally not that simply put forth. When we learn to distinguish falsehood in story, we are applying the principles we learn in nonfiction to living examples. It's very similar to doing story problems. You can work out the Pythagorean Theorem to the last degree, but the story problems show you why the concepts matter in real life.

 We need both kinds of books. People who read only fiction generally struggle with having a solid theological foundation for their beliefs. And people who read only nonfiction tend to struggle with relating with others in real-life. But people who read and treasure each kind can not only know what they should believe, but apply it with love and grace to those around them.  

Seeking after knowledge through books is vital so that we may be firmly grounded in the faith. That we may be able to defend everything, from the existence of God to the application of biblical justice in our favorite mystery. It is important that we learn wisdom and knowledge to know Christ, and to avoid the empty philosophies of the world.

 Chances are that many of you being homeschooled have probably heard of the four learning styles. Well, if you're a reader like me, you're most likely a visual learner. Visual learners love reading materials--love books so much that they don't always need bookmarks, because they can precisely remember where information is located on a page.   This is the way God has wired us book lovers to seek after the knowledge of Christ. He has created us to crave written words and to love stories because that is the way He wants us to use to know Him more.

Once we know why we read, we are then ready to learn how to read with discernment.
For a long time for me, reading was a fun thing. I would hear about these people who evaluated the books they read, and that sounded beyond dull. Who would ever want to pick apart a good story?  Reading is supposed to be relaxing. This attitude may not have done much damage when I was twelve. But as I grew older, I realized what a faulty foundation my mindset was built on. That's like eating whatever you want, no matter whether it's good for you or not, and a very damaging habit if not overcome fairly quickly. Gradually, as I begin blogging and sharing title suggestions with others, God gave me a delight for evaluating the books I was reading, inspired in some part by the responsibility I felt to make sure my recommendations were good ones.  It is so rewarding to take your reading a little deeper than surface level and discover the joys and the philosophies behind the characters you love.
It is our duty, while we take pleasure in our reading, to make sure that we are guarding the philosophies that enter our mind. Some people guard their intellect by sheltering it and end up stunting it; but one of the key verses I've found to define my reading is one I've mentioned before here on the blog. 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 says: For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ 

It takes effort to read with discernment; but it is a rewarding exercise, and you get so much more out of the book then saying "Oh, this book looks all right, maybe I'll give it a try." Guarding our hearts and minds is an active thing and requires a little digging and research. Being wise about what is good and innocent about what is evil takes much prayer and vigilance.

However, we want to make sure that we're not only guarding our hearts, but feeding and growing them as well. That's why, though I look at all my books and take them captive to a Christian perspective, I read books from different worldviews. God's standards of truth are unchangeable, and non-Christian authors who are using good standards and good stories and good morals are borrowing them from God's moral framework, even if they don't acknowledge that. They can't help it, and they can't get away from it.
So how do we choose as a Christian? We choose with discernment those books that will grow us in the knowledge of Christ.  
 The most important thing when we're reading a book is entering it with the mindset that we as the reader are the one in charge. We accept or reject according to how it compares with the principles we find in Scripture. Sometimes we look at a book with the idea that the author is the expert, and who are we to contradict them? But God has made his wisdom available to all of us, and he wants us all to evaluate for ourselves. A book is not good merely because the author is a Christian or bad merely because the author is not--but how does it line up with God's standards? And when we're coming to our reading with a spirit of leadership, we are able to take captive whatever we find to the obedience of our Lord Jesus Christ.

If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. -James 1:5
Because we're on different journeys with different convictions, you may choose to endorse and enjoy different titles than I do. That's a good thing. The goal is not that we all read the same books, but that we all read with the same mindset--a mindset of seeking to know our Lord and know His truth. 
Our time is not our own; and we must make sure that we are using it in a way that honors Christ. There have been several times where I've pitched a book simply because it's not good enough--and I would encourage you fellow book lovers to do so too. Read what you love, and what you enjoy--and spend your time on that. Most of us now are getting less and less time to read, since we're growing into adulthood and taking on more responsibilities--so it is essential that we read that which is most beneficial to our minds and most precious to our hearts. 

Lady Bibliophile

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


KM Weiland's newest fantasy novel, Dreamlander, captures a punch that most fantasy books in today's market don't have. Personally I don't read a lot of fantasy; Lord of the Rings is about my limit. But before Dreamlander released I had an opportunity to watch Weiland through her writing website. Her clear, concise writing advice struck a balance between encouragement and correction that really is rare. Indeed, most writing blogs cause you to walk away feeling discouraged; but Weiland's website, without fail, gives me a sense of being better equipped every time I come. It was this high quality without snarkiness that built my respect for her as a writer; so when I saw Dreamlander release, it kept sizzling at the back of my mind. I couldn't let it go. A writing mentor this unique, who combined quality with kindness, surely had a work worth giving attention to.
And then I finally had a chance to read Dreamlander.  I was beyond impressed.

Chris Redston is a down-and-out freelance journalist with an alcoholic father and a bad case of nightmares. Living with his accommodating friend Mike until he can get back on his feet, he's nightly haunted by the vision of a dark-haired woman on a horse, pleading with him to "stay away" and finishing their interview by raising her gun to shoot him. 

Dreams aren't real of course. But when Chris finds out that his actually are--that he has a parallel identity in the dream land of Lale, and that he is the Gifted, a chosen rescuer, the only one in the entire land--his existence turns upside down.
The land of Lale has already had enough of the Gifted. Allara, a Searcher, (one who takes care of the Gifted) has already had one bad experience with another man who held Chris's position; which turned to treachery, tragedy, and more than one execution. Now that she's seen Chris coming she has tried to warn him away by firing at his reflection. Not only is his life in danger, but if he comes she may very well be accused of witchcraft, for few Searchers take care of more than one Gifted in their lifetime.

But she cannot keep Chris away, and when he comes to Lale bringing the arch-enemy of her people with him, she is afraid of what this means--for she failed to keep her last Gifted safe, and now she has to face the possible elimination of her people all over again.
When Chris brings Lale's biggest enemy from America back to the dream land the weather turns sour, and he realizes that the end of the world is coming. But to his shock, the real Earth is beginning to destruct as well. If he cannot save Lale in time, then he will have been the cause of destroying two worlds by his actions.

 Cons: (contains spoilers)
Chris sometimes brought things over from America to the world of Lale. (Whenever he touches the orimere, anything that touches him comes with him.) Bringing the revolver worked; bringing the flowers for Allara worked. Bringing the Jeep did not. During that incident, it felt like a Disney film, complete with the squealing tires and speeding drivers. That really threw me out of the moment, and I would have preferred Weiland taking that out; it damaged the credibility of the plot. Fortunately it didn't have much bearing on the climax. The hard thing with that is, the scenes with Chris in America while he's trying to get the Jeep work really well. The tension with him and Brooke over whether or not he should enter a mental hospital is very necessary. But transporting the Jeep to Lale takes the tension before the battle out. Fortunately, though it did provide an escape during one of the climax points it wasn't the main climax, and that saved the story.

I didn't like the amount of crudeBritish slang and borderline swearing.  One especially crude instance almost caused me to close the book altogether, and it is this that would give me a measure of caution in who I recommend it to. I think her characters could have found different words to use with just as much effect.
The only other thing that comes to mind would be one of Chris's final actions during the climax. He's preparing to blow the castle up in which Allara is imprisoned, and goes through great mental anguish at the thought that he might kill her. But after the explosion the tension fizzles, and I was left wondering why Weiland made such a big deal of his pain only to have nothing happen to justify it. I didn't want anything to happen to Allara, but I think the tension could have been held up just a little more there.

But altogether these points, while they could be improved upon, did not make the story unreadable or unenjoyable. By far, the pros outweighed the cons.
Pros: (no spoilers)
I think one of the most enjoyable things about Weiland's work was the extent to which she knew her world. The culture is there, and it's huge. It's not a hastily put together thing made simply for the plot's sake. From the geography (which is the most impressive) to the architecture, to the food, to the history, we enter this place just as Chris does: a newcomer looking at a world with huge foundations of ages past. One of the main problems of modern literature is how very little back-story it has. But Weiland's book is well thought out. You can tell that she's put a lot of thought and work and re-writing into Dreamlander to increase its depth. Also, the flipping back and forth between Lale and America wasn't confusing in the least; whenever Chris fell asleep in one world, he woke up in the other.

I also appreciate the quality of Weiland's writing; story plot aside, her phraseology is high-quality, and I come away having learned something about how to better improve my own writing rather than dubiously wondering if my latest read would weaken my own vocabulary. She teaches writing even while providing enjoyment for the reader, and I appreciate that.

The deepest plot was Orias's. Whether to betray his people or the Gifted, whom his people have sworn to protect. A tough decision and one that most people honestly couldn't blame him for making. His fierce battle sprit and the blue blood of the Cherazii, as well as his heroic sacrifices to make right his wrongs make him one man that I am the better for having met. Pitch and Raz, the comedic relief, reminded me rather of Hobbits, though they were called Riviers and didn't have the same physical characteristics. Altogether those two were very much a Merry and Pippin pairing, but I didn't mind the similarity.
And I will say that the romance between Chris (the Gifted) and Allara (the Searcher) was very well done; not overpowering, though they did share a kiss or two in intense moments. They worked together. Their love was based on mutual service, and went deeper than physical attraction.

Ultimate Conclusion
The ending wrenched me. I cried a lot; I think I've only cried more over Return of the King. But I would not have it any different, and I was pleased with it. It was neither happily-ever-after, nor hopeless tragedy, but a nice balance between the two.

Dreamlander is high quality fantasy; much higher than I was expecting. It isn't a genre or a story plot I would normally pick up, but I am glad that I made an exception. This book restored some of my faith in modern-day writers. It's worthy of your attention, and laudable for its quality. I am the better for having read it, and it's a worthwhile story that any Christian bibliophile who loves solid fantasy will enjoy.
I received a Kindle version of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.

Lady Bibliophile
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