In search of goodness in modern books

A few years ago, I was listening to Elizabeth Elliot teach on the Fruits of the Spirit. I knew what Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, etc. were, but I’d never understood what Goodness was. It’s sandwiched in between kindness and gentleness, and my thinking was that Goodness was part of both of those. Kind of like saying “He’s nice.” It doesn’t mean anything.

So I was fascinated when Elizabeth Elliot defined Goodness as being high quality. “It’s like when we say, ‘This is a good cheese,’, or ‘This is a good vintage of wine’. In the same way, we are to be high-quality people.”

This stuck in my mind, especially as applied to writing. Was I portraying Goodness as desirable? Was I showing characters struggling to become higher and higher quality? After all, the refining process takes time and pain, both of which make for great stories.

Note: Holiness is: The state or character of being holy or sinless; purity of moral character; perfect freedom from all evil; sanctity.

Goodness is: The state or quality of being good, in any sense; excellence; purity; virtue; grace; benevolence.

Speaking of great stories, the other day, we were talking in my Discord about why Narnia and Lord of the Rings are still the Christian fantasy gold standards. One person said, “It’s wrong that their writings are still the best of Christian fantasy. By now we should have hundreds of works that are way better, and they’d be mostly honoured as those who started, not … all that it’s recommended when looking for Christian fantasy books.”

This got me thinking. As a Christian writer, I am obsessed with showing sinful man grappling with Ultimate Good. Evil is less interesting to me. Like, I pick up any Christian book, and yawn, it’s some lukewarm believer sinning again. You know what made Lewis and Tolkien stand out? They didn’t bother wallowing in the evil. Sauron has zero on-screen appearances. Instead, they grappled with Goodness, and man struggling to measure up. The Ring is a constant temptation, and arrayed against it are the Goodness of the elves, and Gandalf, and Gondor, and all the Good characters struggling to maintain their holiness in the face of corruption.

Goodness is treasured. It is something precious and desirable.

In Narnia, it’s each character coming to grips with Aslan. We’re not so much interested in what a pathetic waste of space Eustace is. We want to see him face Aslan and see how he changes. Each character is transformed by the end of each book by their confrontation with Good–they are either changed, or destroyed by it.

How many Christian books have been written since then that focus on man’s struggle with Goodness and Holiness and Righteousness? How many treasure goodness and constantly seek it out? I can’t think of any, and I’ve read quite a few. They kind of miss the point. Instead, they turn God into this cosmic battery that the hero channels in order to defeat the Bad Guys. Oh, and the hero wallows in evil. A lot. Like, in some books, the evil is pretty much front and center. This is no different from any book written by a non-believer.

Now, Mormons tend to get it right, and that’s why we have runaway authors like Sanderson and Meyers and Farland. They still write the stories of Man grappling with Good, although imperfectly. I think that’s why their books resonate so much.

For instance, Jeff Wheeler says in his Manifesto on Virtue:


When I was in college at San Jose State, I took Latin classes from Marianina Olcott. That is where I learned about the Roman concept of Virtus (pronounced “where-tuus”). It was a trait that the Romans respected, but it did not mean just virtue. It included other qualities too: prudentia (prudence), iustitia (justice), temperantia (self-control), and fortitudo (courage).

As I look around in the world today, I see that these traits are no longer honored and respected as they were in the past. Maybe that is why I love reading and why I have certain favorite movies I watch over and over again. You see, in my favorite books and films, the stories that grab me are about Virtus. All right, they can be cheesy sometimes. But I love that moment in Return of the Jedi when Luke throws down his light saber and tells the Emperor he failed to turn him to the Dark Side. That despite everything that will happen to his friends and (gulp) his “sister”, he surrenders and takes the blast of Force lightning full in the chest. That is Virtus.


I posted about this in a Christian writer’s group on social media. I received comments utterly dismissing my argument out of hand.

“Simple factor. [Narnia and LOTR] were not wrtten as “Christian” books. They were written for a secular audience and published by secular publishers. They were just writing great literature. They weren’t writing great “Christian” literature.

And both being classically trained lit professors probably didn’t hurt, especially considering the types of education they got. They probably wrote more during their teen years than most authors writing today have done in their entire lives”

Because Lewis and Tolkien were obviously gods among men and we can’t hope to achieve anything they did, or even study them to learn what they did. Yes. Very good lesson to draw from this.

I was also informed that stories that are dark and vile and end in death and despair have value. I have to wonder, to whom? English lit teachers? Fantasy readers seem to enjoy it with Game of Thrones, but I think that, even there, people still hope for some kind of a satisfying ending. There will probably never be one.

So, as a fellow Christian writer, I challenge every writer. Look at your books and see if you are glorifying good or evil. How many pages are devoted to villains and sin and perversion? How many pages are devoted to Goodness and Righteousness and Holiness? And I don’t mean in an ironic way. I mean in an honest, actual, doctrinal way, which shows what you know of Goodness?

Tolkien and Lewis changed the entire fantasy genre. Let’s change it again, writers. But we have to focus on grappling with the Good.

The Talented trilogy by Rossano: a theology review

A friend on my Discord was telling me about her favorite book series. “But I’ve only read the first two books,” she said, “because I had to wait for the third one to come out.” I picked up a sample of the first book, liked what I read, and kept reading, all the way through three books.

BTW, if you are the author, click away now.

The three books in the Talented trilogy by Rachel Rossano

Since the summaries of the books are garbage, I refuse to use them and instead have written my own:

In a world based on Europe after the fall of Rome, a very Rome-inspired kingdom has the Talented and the non-Talented. This means that some people are born with psychic and telekinetic powers, and some aren’t. Seventh sons, in particular, have lots of powers, and the seventh son of a seventh son has multiplied powers. This is great unless the seventh child is born a daughter, because girls are only fit for breeding in this universe. The heroine, Zezilia, is seventh born and about to be introduced to society on her 15th birthday, when a talent trainer notices her insane levels of psychic power and takes her off to train her against her father’s wishes.

The highest mage in the land is the Sept Son, and his job is to train other talents and keep them from turning their powers to criminal use. Hadrian is barely old enough to drink and the seventh son of a seventh son, chosen for his crazy levels of power. He has to check Zezilia for powers and sparks fly. Bam, three years go by so now she’s eighteen and legally able to have romance, lol! Her powers are stronger than his. Since everybody in the kingdom wants Hadrian dead for increasingly hazy reasons, Zez becomes his bodyguard, except whoops, he already agreed to marry her sight unseen as the cost of training her. Cue the dramatic tension.


I have a weakness for psychic romance, and I thought it was interesting that the characters pray to the Almighty all the time. So I dove in. The psychic romance is very mild compared to, say, Firebird by Kathy Tyers. Psychic romance is very hot because of the intimacy without any physical contact. This author obviously tried to keep everything to a very mild T-rating. The characters barely kiss even after they’re married, snicker. The action is entertaining and the politics are kind of fun … at first. More on that later.

If you can’t tell, I’m building to a gripe about this trilogy. Surprise, it’s the theology.

I don’t know what denomination this author is, but the Christianity is very constrained, and by the end, I would say it’s very neutered. In book 1, the driving conflict of the plot is that the country nominally worships the Goddess, while the hero, Hadrian, worships the Almighty. And … uh … that’s about all we’re told, even though these characters pray to the Almighty literally on every page. What is the name of the Goddess? How do people worship her? Why are they threatened by Almighty worship? We’re never told. The high priest of the Goddess works very hard to undermine Hadrian and replace him … but why? By book 2, the high priest is randomly killed off and the Goddess thing is a non-issue.

We’re told that the Almighty hates sin and you have to pray to be forgiven and stuff, and the characters lug around battered copies of the holy book, the Revelation. But that’s all there is to the religion. They pray and pray and pray to this Almighty and receive in exchange a vague sense of peace. The Almighty never speaks to them, which is weird in a trilogy about psychic communication. You’d think somebody would get a message, or an emotion, or a picture, or some guidance of any kind. Book 2 has a character pick up the idiot ball and run with it twice because “apparently it’s so hard to figure out the will of the Almighty”.

By book 3, it’s apparent that the high priest of the Goddess had to die because the religion of the Goddess actually had more depth than the Almighty one. Instead, he is replaced by a political insurgent who uses abuse and sex to control people so you know he’s really the evil one. The constant praying to the Almighty slowly loses steam because the author has nothing else to say about him. He’s, uh, good or something. Even though the religion is used like a bludgeon (“You’re depressed? It’s because you don’t BELIEVE hard enough!”). There’s no joy, no reward, no relationship in this religion. The Almighty never intercedes for his followers. He’s just as distant and uncaring as the Goddess is said to be.

This really bothered me, because I’ve been writing very vivid relationships between my characters and the Divine. Since God, himself, is hard to fit into the human brain, I’ve been experimenting with metaphors, like Fith in After Atlantis, who is basically an elemental of fire and righteousness. He is present. He is terrible. He is good. And he shows up to chat whenever the heroes need him, usually with hard advice and lavish kindness combined. I was hoping that with this Christian psychic book, with intricate worldbuilding, would find a unique way to portray the believer’s relationship with God.

Turns out, I was wrong. I got to the end and was like, okay, so, what’s the deal with the Almighty? You could cut him and the Goddess out of the books and it would make literally no difference. If you made the hero black and the bad guys white, it would be the exact same conflict, and have the exact same depth. And by the end, it’s some kind of class warfare struggle anyway, because … apparently that was actually a deeper conflict to build a plot on than anything religious.

I finished the trilogy happy for the ending the characters got, but frustrated with the shallowness of the theology. I expected deep moral issues, and any kind of a portrayal of God. What I got was some kind of tract. You’re taught how to join this religion, but the religion itself is nothing I’d want to be part of. It was dead and awful. And I’m sorry to say it. As a Christian, myself, I’m deeply disappointed in this portrayal. It misrepresents everything about true faith and how God’s will actually works.

Anyway, this was a lot of space to rant about a book trilogy that I nominally enjoyed. Here is the Book a Minute of the trilogy:

Zez: I have powerful powers.

Hadrian: I am cruelly overworked.

Zez: Let’s kiss.

SOMEONE TRIES TO KILL HADRIAN

Hadrian: Sorry about that. Let’s kiss.

SOMEONE TRIES TO KILL HADRIAN

Zez: That sucked. Let’s kiss.

SOMEONE TRIES TO KILL HADRIAN

REPEAT 1000X MORE

THE END

Repost: The strangely Christian meta-narrative of the Destiny games

I wrote this post back in 2018, back before a lot of the storyline had been revealed. It’s only proved my point even more. I thought it was time to repost this and update it a bit.


Hold on to your hats, folks, I’m going all literary analysis on you today.

So I’ve been getting into the games Destiny and Destiny 2. These are multiplayer online shooters where you shoot aliens and collect loot. Pretty straightforward and pretty fun (and often, just downright pretty.)

Bungie Destiny 2, Nessus: Landscape painting of a forest with red trees with human figure looking at waterfall.
Destiny 2 concept art: Nessus

But the game also hints at a deeper backstory that it doesn’t explain super well, unless you’re willing to spend hours piecing together tidbits scattered throughout the games. So I’ve been watching lore videos on YouTube, where other people take all those tidbits and string them together into a cohesive story.

I’ve been increasingly delighted with the meta-narrative of Destiny.

Like most science fiction, the story operates from a humanist worldview: mankind can become gods if we just put aside our differences and work hard enough. But then the metaplot comes into play, and it’s decidedly not humanist. In fact, it swings decidedly Christian. I wonder if the writers at Bungie realize what they hath wrought and its significance.

The big picture story goes like this. There is this alien-machine god-thing called the Traveler that looks like a small white moon. It’s power is called Light. It shows up in our solar system, grants humans the Light, and terraforms the inner planets and the various moons of the gas giants. Humans go live on these planets. Humans also develop longer lives, better tech, etc, and go into a Golden Age.

Bungie Destiny 2: Man in armor stands at railing, looking at thunderstorm over cityscape with Traveler in the distance
Destiny concept art

This doesn’t last, of course. There’s an evil force called the Darkness that chases the Traveler from place to place. Its weapons are four alien races that serve it, but all who crave the Light–or hate it. They stomp humanity, destroy their colonies, and ruin Earth.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The Traveler actually battles the Darkness one on one. The game is very vague about this point, and the lore videos have multiple theories about what exactly happened. Point is, the Traveler won, but it was wounded and stopped terraforming and things.

Instead, it sent out these tiny robots made of Light called Ghosts. Each Ghost resurrects a single person, basically a zombie (or revenant, since they have their soul) powered by Light. They became known as Guardians. If one of these guardians is killed, they can be resurrected so long as their Ghost is unharmed. If their Ghost dies, no more resurrections for them, it’s lights out.

Bungie Destiny warlock: human figure in armor looks at Ghost robot
Destiny warlock by TDSpiral

See the metaphor going on, here? It’s super interesting. Almost a Holy Ghost thing.

Now, it’s not a perfect metaphor. In real life, the God is the source of all Light, and He was not only before the Darkness, he already defeated it. The Darkness itself has a name and a face. Once known as the Light Bearer, he has become the Enemy, and his sin was pride. “I will become like the Most High!”

Jesus battled the Darkness and overcame it, being wounded on our behalf. In Destiny terms, the Last City in the shadow of the Traveler might as well be built at the foot of the Cross, because the symbolism is so similar.

Now, it’s really too bad that Destiny clings to its humanist philosophy. In its lore, the Traveler gives Light without making any demands of humanity. No devotion to righteousness, no forsaking sin and Darkness. In real life, there are two sides, and we have to pick one. If that was the case in Destiny, then the battle between Light and Darkness would go beyond meta-narrative and become the personal struggle of every Guardian. The story of the Warlords–guardians who abused their power–would become even more vile.

Bungie Destiny 2 concept art by Jeremy Fenske: human figure stands before ring-shaped Vex portal
Destiny 2 concept art by Jeremy Fenske

If such a choosing of sides was possible, then redemption would also be possible for the four alien races who serve the Darkness, however unwittingly. It would be possible for them to abandon Darkness and serve the Light, too, thus becoming very interesting allies.

But Destiny keeps things very Tao, with Light and Darkness equally matched and no ultimate victory is possible. Mankind doesn’t have to seek righteousness and abandon sin in order to receive power. (Which, the more you think about it, is so strange. Why aren’t Guardians forced to pick sides? There are in-game stories of Guardians who joined the Darkness, so maybe, in a way, that choice is still there, just buried out of sight.)

So, that’s Destiny’s meta-narrative, a lot of Christian ideas underlying a humanist story. And it’s funny, because if you make the game more humanist (the Light is ours because humanity is awesome), then the battle between Light and Darkness falls apart, with no real difference between them. If you make the game more Christian, with the Light actually having conditions and everyone being forced to pick sides, then the story becomes much more profound.

Note from 2021: The storyline of Uldren/Crow has brought home this point even harder. Uldren was the prince of the Awoken (think space elves), and he was a pretty miserable, increasingly depressed guy with mommy issues. When the queen died, he went off the deep end and started murdering his own people and doing a lot of other bad stuff. Eventually, he killed a main character, and our player character hunted him down and executed him. He doesn’t even put up a fight, and it’s very unsatisfying.

Well, later on in the game, a Ghost finds Uldren’s corpse and resurrects him. He takes the name Crow, and has no memory of his past. He winds up being extremely kind and merciful to the alien races, particularly the Fallen, who once had the Traveler’s blessing. He has this wonderful redemption arc that has been as satisfying as his death was unsatisfying.

Top: Crow is offered friendship. Bottom: Uldren shoots Cayde-6
Top: Crow being offered friendship by the hero leader. Bottom: Uldren executing the best friend of the hero leader.

Maybe that’s one reason the story is intentionally left vague, scattered throughout the game in hints and tidbits. Breadcrumbs for those to see who can. I’m continually shocked at the Christian terminology these lore gamers use to describe these concepts.

I think it’s a good lesson for us Christian writers. Tell a good story and don’t be afraid to pull in delicious metaphor about the struggle between good and evil. It rings true for everyone.

Bungie Destiny 2 concept art: landscape under storm clouds with Shard of the Traveler
Destiny 2 concept art: shard of the Traveler

Have you noticed any other religious points I ought to touch on? I know I’d like to dig into the Hive, evil aliens who take Gnosticism to its logical conclusion. There’s also the story of Thorn and the Last Word, which is a parable about moral relativism vs. moral absolutes. This game is packed with brain candy.

Doubting Thomas and the entertainment factor

Last week, I was hanging out on Facebook, reading discussions in the various groups I hang out in. I happened across a fairly benign question: If your characters are Christians, how much do they express the tenets of their faith?

Since it was a Christian writer’s group, I didn’t bat an eye. Then I started reading the comments.

“My character struggles with doubt.”

“My character doesn’t really believe in her religion.”

“My character is angry at God after a tragedy.”

The entire comment thread was like that. A whole crowd of people writing about characters who don’t really believe their own religion.

I commented about a character I’ve been writing who has unswerving faith in his deity, but this brings about other problems in his social circles, because he goes and does things nobody else would dream of doing, and people think he’s crazy.

Then I asked why there were so many Doubting Thomas characters. I was writing the only character who had any faith at all. I was told that doubting characters are written by doubting authors.

Which is troubling.

Now, I know that doubting the unseen is a common thread in speculative fiction. Characters doubt whether anything spiritual is real, in urban fantasy and paranormal romance and all those. But Christian books seem especially prone to it. Every Stephen Lawhead character is like this, and pretty much all Ted Dekker characters … my reading pool of Christian books has shrunk over the years, so maybe the doubting character thing isn’t as widespread as it was.

Or, judging by that thread, maybe it’s alive and well.

Angel-of-Renewal
Angel of Renewal, Magic the Gathering card art

Now, I can understand why you’d have a character struggling to believe some cosmic truth. No character really wants to be the Chosen One, destined to fulfill the prophecy or slay the vampire king or take down the dragon or whatever. It’s a stage in the Hero’s Journey, after all.

But when the main theme of the book is a character who doesn’t believe in their own religion? Come on. If you’re going to bother putting religion in your book, make it worthwhile. It’s got to be either a bad religion, with cultists summoning eldritch abominations, or a good religion that helps people in some way. And have the characters either believe or disbelieve it. The lukewarm dithering thing gets old.

I think what bugs me the most is that any other religion gets represented well in books. If a character is a Buddhist, I see them trying to live out the tenants of their religion by trying to be a good person, eschew material goods, etc. If a character is a Muslim, they observe the holidays, the food laws, the prayers, and so forth. So, why is it only the Christians who whine about “Is God really real? Why should I bother doing any of my religious stuff?”

I think it’s an alarming indication of how lukewarm we American Christians have become. I would love to read a book, even speculative fiction, where a Christian character actually has faith, lives by it, and goes through all the ups and downs of that. Kind of like Father Tim in the Mitford books, which is the only example I can think of. And he’s Episcopalian, which is closer to Catholic, so not even the Protestant branch so many of my writer friends are.

Faith in any religion requires life changes. And in fact, it increases the entertainment value if a character’s faith motivates them to get stuck in all kinds of interesting situations. At this point, in a book, I’d be happy with any kind of fantasy religion, as long as the author is true to the character’s choices about it. The Queen’s Thief series is like that–there’s a pantheon that interacts with the heroes, depending on their actions and beliefs. And those books are tremendously entertaining.

Does anybody remember Testament, by John Grisham? A super rich man dies and leaves his fortune to a niece or something who is down in the jungle in Brazil as a missionary. A troubled lawyer is dispatched on an epic jungle adventure and tell her she’s inherited a zillion dollars. Missionary doesn’t want it, back the lawyer goes to the States to settle the crazy relatives who are fighting over the will. Hugely entertaining. Wonderful presentation of a character who lives by faith in the jungles, and the impact of her faith on the lawyer.

So, I guess my point is, authors, dare to write about characters who FREAKING BELIEVE IN SOMETHING. It’s more entertaining than a wishy-washy character who doesn’t really believe anything and you know will have some kind of cringy “return to faith” scene at the 3/4ths mark.

Dragons and fairies – interview with Ralene Burke

Today I’m interviewing Ralene Burke, author of the fantasy novel Bellanok. I just finished reading it, and it was a fun, gentle romp through a fantasyland with a heaping helping of faith. Here’s the interview!

bellanokanovel

 

 1.  Welcome to the blog, Ralene! Thanks for joining us! First, tell us about your book. What genre/age group is it for? And what’s the story about?
Bellanok is a contemporary fantasy geared toward readers in their 20s. Although, I’ve heard from readers of all ages, including YA readers, who have enjoyed the story. Here’s the blurb:
A haven for myths and legends . . . until evil discovers a way in.

With evil darkening the mountains to the north, the fairy queen, Fauna, must journey from the island realm of Bellanok to the modern world to find the man the Creator appointed to save their kingdom. A man she has been dreaming of her whole life.

Brian is a down-on-his-luck pastor on the verge of giving up on God. He’s tired and frustrated–a failure. No sooner does he make a decision that jeopardizes his career than an unusual blonde woman shows up and tries to convince him he is some kind of savior.

Fauna must open Brian’s eyes to a different reality, and Brian needs to embrace the haven’s secrets. If neither of them succeeds, Bellanok will succumb to evil and the world will lose all trace of innocence.

2. What made you want to write this particular story?
It all started with a prayer. I was asking God for guidance on where to go after finishing edits on a WIP. The first chapter of Bellanok popped into my head. After a couple of days with that chapter demanding to be written, I sat down and cranked it out. That seemed to alleviate the urgency while I finished the current WIP, but the story was still building in the back of my mind. Once I had time, I was able to start cranking out the story.

3. What was your favorite part to write?
Any part with Roman in it? Seriously, Roman was my favorite character to write—mostly because he’s just so different from me. But he says many things that I wish I had the guts to say. Ha!

4. What was the hardest part to write?
I can’t tell you that without revealing a major plot point in the story. I will say, bring out the tissues! The second hardest part to write was the end. For several scenes in the final battles, Fauna and Brian are in separate places with different dangers around them.

5. This book was originally written in serial format. What are the pros and cons of writing that way?
Ah, yes, the serial project was an interesting experience. I had fun with it and would totally try to do it again (though I would change a few things).
Pros: The serial format allowed me to keep putting my name/story out in front of readers with each release, thus helping to build a following more quickly.
The serial forced me to think on my feet and make a cohesive story without being able to go back and change things. So it was a great exercise for stretching my writing muscles.
Cons: Ideally, each part of the serial would have released about 6-8 weeks apart. Due to life, that didn’t happen. So while the serial format did help to build a following, it wasn’t as effective as it should have been.
I don’t like not being able to go back to previous parts and change details or plot lines. Of course, that could be solved by writing the whole thing first—but that would have taken too long!

6. The theme of Bellanok is a journey back into faith. Why is this important to you?
It’s important to me because much of Brian’s journey is mine as well. I’ve always been a believer, but it wasn’t until my 20s that I reached a time when my faith was challenged, where I felt that I just couldn’t connect with God.
While it didn’t take me journeying to a mystical island to save unicorns to find that connection, God did have to bring me to my knees before I was able to see the problems.
I think many people go through the same kind of challenges—each unique to the person—but with the same struggles and desperation. Bellanok helps readers to sort through the coinciding emotions and thoughts while escaping with Brian to fight the battle and save the world.

Thank you for joining us on the blog today, Ralene! Best of luck with Bellanok and all future books!

Check out Bellanok on Amazon!

ralene-lr-4

RALENE BURKE BIO:
Whether she’s wielding a fantasy writer’s pen, a freelance editor’s sword, or a social media wand, Ralene Burke always has her head in some dreamer’s world. And her goal is to help everyone SHINE BEYOND! She has worked for a variety of groups, including Realm Makers, The Christian PEN, Kentucky Christian Writers Conference, and as an editor for several freelance clients. Her first novel, Bellanok, is available on Amazon!
When her head’s not in the publishing world, she is wife to a veteran and homeschooling mama to their three kids. Her Pinterest board would have you believe she is a master chef, excellent seamstress, and all around crafty diva. If she only had the time . . .
You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, or at her website.