Thursday, February 24, 2011

An Image in My Head

Most people don't wonder about a body floating in the water.

Unless you are a writer.

The body is just to the left

That's the image that came to me many moons ago. I saw in my mind a body floating in the water, in the ocean to be specific. Then I saw a boat run into the body, and the shocked fisherman frightened by his find.

Did I mention the man was from Thailand?

This is how my work in progress started. An image in my head. I started asking questions. Who is this person? Why are they dead? How did they end up here?

I learned that it was Travis Dawson, and that he was a missionary in Thailand. I discovered he had a sister named Jenna who was in medical school. She was a spunky younger sister type, and she didn't take too well to the news of her brother's death. She was impulsive enough to jet off to Asia to try and figure out what happened. Oh, and her slacker friend Derek Stephens, who had done a backpacking trip in Thailand previously, decided to tag along.

I don't know how other authors come up with their story ideas, but I usually have images that beg to be explored. Yesterday for the end of the CSFF Tour I talked about whether a writer has their basic thrust as message-first vs. art-first. The responses from Dona, Becky, and Morgan made me think about my own process.

You have the set-up for my novel above. I thought for a time that there would be an aspect of spiritual warfare between the Christian missionaries and the strongholds in SE Asia. That didn't fit the story though. Then I saw how Jenna had been estranged from her faith due to family trials when younger, and she would be challenged in them while dealing with something bigger than she could handle in Thailand. Travis uncovered a human trafficking ring, and this lead to his death and would be a major challenge to Jenna.

It seems that I had the story kernel that wanted told at first, and the themes of faith and human trafficking came out from there. I believe there's always a theme when we write - otherwise what is the point of writing? Even if a writer says there's not, there is something of their worldview getting in there.

Both the message and art pathways are valid ways to begin, and both have their strengths and weaknesses. Like I said in yesterday's post, a message driven book must have a strong story and sparkling writing to not be bogged down by the message. It may not appear organic. But the "let's see where the muse takes us" approach can end up with a wishy-washy theme that doesn't give a work of fiction the power only a story can bring.

What say my writing buddies? What is your approach, and why do you do it that way?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

CSFF Tour Day 3 - The God Haters

Okay, so I'm in the minority in this one.

Yesterday I gave my review for The God Haters by Bill Myers, in which I didn't have a great opinion of the book. It seems that a majority of the CSFF Tour is enjoying the book. There are a few that REALLY love it, a wider majority that likes it a lot, and there are a couple of stragglers with me saying "Meh." (I love to say "meh" even when I don't have a reason for it. Meh.)

That's alright. Everyone's going to have an opinion, and I admire what he tried to do, and he's published way more books than me, so take this for what it is.

I followed The God Hater by reading The Resurrection, the debut novel from internet buddy Mike Duran, and the subject of next month's CSFF tour. The back-to-back reading was an interesting contrast to me.

Bill Myers said in a Q&A in the back of his book that he likes to have a significant quiet time each morning with God to seek ideas about his writing. He seems to write books directed at opening Biblical truth in new ways via fiction. This is my take at least, and I consider it an admirable goal.

Mike Duran has been blogging for quite a while at Decompose, and he is a strong proponent of the "art first/message second" school of thought.

I mentioned yesterday that there seems to be two philosophical schools in CBA fiction (and in Christian entertainment in general, i.e. film, music, etc.). One way has a message or theme that they craft a story around, and the other comes at a story open-ended, and in the creative process the theme works out from that. Of course these are simplifications and these type of things never fit neatly into a specific box.

I would say that there was a different tactic taken by the two authors I'm contrasting. My perception is that Myers was inspired to write a story that presented God's logic as a creator through an imperfect vessel, an atheist professor, and had to weave around that framework. I would guess Duran asked a question: What would happen if a resurrection happened today, and wrote his story exploring that a little more open-ended.

I'm not trying to say one way or the other is right. I would say that there are potential pitfalls with both approaches. Myers' book is a loose allegory, and to try and work a Biblical tale into modern fiction is a difficult task. An author really has to nail it to make it work. I think Francine Rivers has done that very well with her book Redeeming Love, which is mentioned often as a great book that is a Western take on the story of Hosea. I've also seen books written closer to Duran's work that don't make a strong statement one way or the other on its premise, which is a let down to a reader.

I remember a heated debate in the mid 90's (yes, way back then) when the editor of CCM Magazine slammed the latest album by Carman, considering it to be inferior art and only a vehicle for preaching a message with a beat associated with it. The two sat down in an interview and cleared the air, but it was an interesting event nonetheless. I do side more with the editor, because I think Christian art (whether fiction, music, or film) gets a bad rap when we produce weak product but sell it because it is "ministry." Brandilyn Collins is a prolific suspense author that has been praised by Publishers Weekly. She has said many times her job is to entertain first, but as a Christian author she gets to put in truth to varying degrees based off what fits the story, which only adds depth to what she is doing. I like this statement, and I would say it sums up my philosophy well.

I can't really state where either author comes from. I can only give my opinion and relate it to the idea of how do we write. The two different novels served as a jumping off point is all. Obviously The God Haters didn't work for me, but I also don't like those that get sanctimonious about a work of art being inferior. Give your opinion, but don't take it personal. I've seen other Christians get on their high horse over such issues. I wish Bill Myers much success in his writing career. But I won't be passing it on to other readers either.

If you're curious about The Resurrection, I'll have a review of it for my next post. If you want to see what the other tourmates are saying about The God Maker, check out Becky Miller's blog, as she keeps track of all the posts for the tour. The CSFF tour is always enjoyable in seeing the varying opinions, so check them out!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

CFBA Tour - Save the Date

We interrupt this blog tour with another blog tour.

I also review for the Christian Fiction Blog Alliance. This week they are featuring Jenny B. Jones and her latest book, Save the Date.

I hope it has been established now that I'm a dude. I like explosions, football collisions, and helicopter/car chases. All three mashed together is awesome sauce.

I found out about Jenny B. Jones through Chip MacGregor, fiction agent extraordinare who is enough of a dude that he wears a kilt. In public. He highlighted her as a very funny writer. So I decided to get her book to review, likely having my wife read it.


I didn't get it in time to finish it for the tour, but I am laughing out loud while reading it. And it is a ROMANCE. Now, it does have an ex-football player, which gives it a few manly points, but note that he is an EX. I don't care. I'm enjoying her writing style, the prose, the witty sense of humor. And I really want to see what happens to Lucy and her girls' home.


Take that for what it's worth, and check out her book.

(Time to blow something in a video game...hey, don't look at me like I'm weird...)

CSFF Tour Day 2 - The God Haters

Welcome back to the CSFF Tour for February. This month's featured book is The God Hater by Bill Myers.

For a synopsis, check out yesterday's post introducing the book.

This book fits a "speculative fiction" category by supposing that we can build an artificial computer world, with completely independent artificial intelligence, that can be used to see how humanity will respond to variables and make better predictions.

My prediction is that this book will do well with general Christian fiction (specifically CBA readers). And that is perhaps a shame.

This book is written for a purpose. It has a specific aim - to show the logic God used in creating our world and the need for divine intervention (per the Questions to the Author in the back of the book). The book is designed to be a challenge to the New Atheists who are challenging Christian belief with old arguments and renewed fervor. It is a noble purpose, certainly. From a personal standpoint I would love to see it succeed.

Reviewing it for artistic purposes is another story.

Often Christian art is considered to be in one of two categories: it is made with creativity as the primary goal, and the theme taken from the book is incidental, or it is made with a message as the anchor, and the story is conceived and created around it. I don't think it is necessarily bad to have a book written with the second point as the motivation, but it means that the story will require a very deft touch to make the work stand on artistic merits, apart from the theme (however holy it may be).

The God Haters, in my opinion, fails to rise above the forced preconceptions and stand as a quality piece of fiction. The story suffers from several flaws. The characters are generally 2D cut-outs, created to hold a place in the story without much depth or empathy. The Christian professor Annie escapes this to a degree, but she doesn't carry enough of the story to overcome the other flat people. He uses several writing techniques that jarred me out of the imaginary world he was attempting to create, from using parentheses for several asides to a character with an annoying vocal tic ("bro!"). There were also a couple of scientific mistakes that threw me as a biology major, but that is me being overly picky.

The suspense and plot is pulled along well enough, and isn't all that bad. It just isn't all that good either. I didn't get bored, but I wasn't invested in what was happening. There are some touching moments as he delves into the computer simulation and the professor's avatar gains more and more compassion for the "creation," but it is too little, too late to save the book. A major issue seems to be that the book is too short to give the depth needed to make everything more believable. Perhaps it would be a different story if it had the length to give the depth required.

The book gives the whole back copy to quotes of endorsements. There's no place to get a synopsis of the book, and I think that will be a disservice to readers as well.

I don't like to give such negative reviews, but I have to be honest in my impression of a book to have some integrity as a reviewer. Christian art can be especially tricky, because the charge can be brought that I'm harming a brother in their ministry or something similar. Like I said, I admire the intent, and wish it could have worked out better. It was an ambitious project, but my opinion is that it isn't a great book for those looking for a story with in-depth characters and a carefully crafted plot. If you're looking for a book to shore up your Christian beliefs, then this book would be entertaining enough. I wouldn't recommend it to a non-believer, but I really won't be recommending it anyway.

If you make it past this gloomy review, tomorrow I want to talk about the issue of art and theme raised by this book, and compare it with another recent read.

I did receive a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, and was obviously not required to give a positive endorsement in exchange for the book. The opinions are my own.

Oh, and check out my tourmates at Becky's blog for the latest and greatest from the others in the CSFF Tour.

Monday, February 21, 2011

CSFF Tour Day 1 - The God Haters

I hate God, and you too!
I had one of *those* professors.

You know, one of those college PhD's who enjoyed destroying the faith of unsuspecting freshmen coming to college with their parents' religion shackled to them like mental bungie cords, holding them back from truly learning in the world of higher learning. (See, you can tell by that sentence that I'm a college graduate!)

The only problem for Dr. Bob Anderson is that I didn't take him as a freshmen.

I would have done fine if I had. I'd done enough study into my own faith to shore it up. But I took him as a senior majoring in biology, taking the long put-off Botany 101 that I was hoping to avoid by getting into the physician assistant program before I had to take some rabbit classes (you know, botany, ecology - all the plant stuff). I'd also spent 9 months in YWAM's School of Biblical Studies, so I wasn't worried when I showed up to the first day of class and Dr. Anderson was at the podium (he wasn't supposed to teach it, but they must have needed a switch, since he was an entomologist).

He required us to buy his own little screed in addition to our botany textbook. He spent six weeks discussing his philosophy of science and learning, while spending less than one full lecture on photosynthesis (which seems to be a fairly important biochemical reaction, but whatever dude). It was quite frustrating, but it didn't shake me up at all. It was my main experience with this common college happenstance.

This leads us to this month's feature book, The God Hater by Bill Myers. The book features such an atheistic professor, Nicholas Mackenzie, who delights in tearing down religion and showing it for the farce he believes it to be. He's a cranky curmudgeon who is only really close to sweet Annie Brooks, another professor who happens to be a Christian, and her young son Rusty.

He is estranged from his computer genius brother Travis, but he gets a cryptic message from him asking for help. It seems that Travis has managed to create a true artificial intelligence, with a computer world filled with about 1000 denizens who keep wiping each other out in simulation after simulation. Travis needs his philosphical brother to create a worldview that will allow the simulation to proceed with a foundation that will keep them from obliterating each other. The key part is that their free will must be kept intact, or it will be no better than the programmers telling their creation what to do.

While the Mackenzies wrestle with their philosophical dilemna, it seems Travis has had to do some questionable hacking to rustle up enough computer power to keep this "super-secret" project going - and some people are interested enough in the outcome of this experiment that they are willing to use Annie and Rusty as leverage against Nicholas.

As they dodge the guys in black suits, Nicholas is failing in his attempts to influence the program's inhabitants to follow a simple, materialistically-devised philosophy. Maybe if he has a digital avatar go and explain the rules of life to the simulations, he will have better success...

And with that, I leave you for my review of the book tomorrow. But check out my tourmates below for more discussion and other antics.

Noah Arsenault
Red Bissell
Thomas Clayton Booher
Keanan Brand
Kathy Brasby
Rachel Briard
Beckie Burnham
Morgan L. Busse
Carol Bruce Collett
Valerie Comer
Karri Compton
CSFF Blog Tour
April Erwin
Amber French
Andrea Graham
Tori Greene
Katie Hart
Ryan Heart
Joleen Howell
Bruce Hennigan
Becky Jesse
Cris Jesse
Becca Johnson
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Emily LaVigne
Shannon McDermott
Matt Mikalatos
Rebecca LuElla Miller
John W. Otte
Sarah Sawyer
Chawna Schroeder
Andrea Schultz
Tammy Shelnut
Kathleen Smith
James Somers
Donna Swanson
Jessica Thomas
Steve Trower
Fred Warren
Dona Watson
Nicole White
Dave Wilson

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Thoughts on Violence in Word and Deed

It seems in the blogosphere there has been new conversation on the topic of language use and violence in Christian art. Note that the ideas presented aren't necessarily new, but a healthy conversation is brewing in a few different sectors. 

Mike Duran is always up to stirring up contention, discussion on his blog Decompose. He uses the example of the counting of different potentially offensive terms in the movie The Blind Side to springboard into a discussion of language in Christian fiction. His recent novel The Resurrection had a jaded construction worker, who couldn't say damn or hell because it was produced for the CBA market.

In the recent issue of Relevant, Dan Haseltine of Jars of Clay asks if "offensive art can be Christian." He starts off talking about a secular band declaring their allegiance  to Jesus in a song that also drops an F-bomb. Does the fact that they used such a word demean their otherwise Christian content? For a little more food for thought, check out this quote from the article:
We have come so far from reflecting the rebel Jesus in our art and cultural engagement that we do not recognize Him when He surfaces. I still wrestle with the fact that Jesus hung out with prostitutes not simply to tell them what they were doing wrong, but to love them where they were. He was in the world, and His agenda was to love. He was not looking for reasons to be offended. He was not looking for reasons to stay home, safely out of harm’s way. We weren’t set apart in order to live apart. We were called God’s own so we could confidently go into the world. 
 In a contrary grain, another author writes in Relevant that "Christian artists should (not) use violence." He uses the term "violence" to include gratuitous sex and language. His contention is that the world is so jaded that using rough violence or stark violence or sex doesn't faze the world anymore. When our morals were on a similar level, works like Flannery O'Connor's provided a shock that hit complacency. Now when modern art tries to find new levels to shock and awe, then perhaps the answer  for the Christian artist is to paint a picture of beauty to be the contrast.
Whatever should be done, it is clear the Christian artist faces a peculiar enemy today: the expanding boredom of the modern age, which has the power to wash out even the severest expressions, and violence is its latest casualty. It is the constant duty of the Christian artist to outwit this amoebic tendency to consume and excrete, to make retail of riches. She must forge new paths of expression and restore old ones. When the world builds for itself a Tower of Babel, then she must paint a pile of rubble, and then when it is knocked down and the peoples wander in the refuse, she must paint a glittering city with jasper walls and foundations of precious stone. 
 A very intriguing article, and if you have to pick one, I think this would be it.

Finally, the flavor du jour here has been The Civil Wars. In an article in the Los Angeles Times, Joy Williams describes the freedom she now experiences being out of the Contemporary Christian Music realm.
“The process of being with John Paul  (White, her band partner) is this wonderful discovery of creative freedom that I didn’t know that I had,” she said. “I started in a very restrictive genre of music. But the reality is that I’m able to write a lot more about the world around me, if it’s about faith or about cigarettes, or about murder or adultery, or about a movie that I saw, or a book we’ve both read.”  Emphasis mine.

I like to put out interesting thoughts and articles for people to explore more. If you have thoughts on it, I'd enjoy your comments here as well.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Challenging Creativity

Call it a case of "put your money where your mouth is."

Last week I blogged about The Civil Wars and their debut album, Barton Hollow (or as they pronounce it, "Barton Hawller"). This beautiful set of songs has really captured my attention. It has also forced me to stand on some of the principles I've stated at this blog.

Many times I have proclaimed that Christian artists should have the freedom to produce the art they feel called to make, whether it is specifically "Christian" (which is a tricky definition) or not. So many times, we pigeon-hole Christian artists to make a certain type of music, or write only uplifting, God-honoring lyrics.

As far as I know, The Civil Wars are not a "Christian" band. However, Joy Williams had a career in CCM (contemporary Christian music) prior to joining John Paul White to form The Civil Wars. As far as I know, Mr. White has not had such a career.

In the midst of their moving vocals, there are lines such as:
"Ain't going back to Barton Hollow
Devil gonna follow me e'er I go
Won't do me no good washing in the river
Can't no preacher man save my soul"

"If I die before I wake

I know the Lord my soul won't take"

Doesn't sound like typical CCM fare to me. In fact, initially I stumbled on this a little. It bothered me hearing them sing this at first, because I took it as denying that the Lord can save.

Is this really what they're saying?

Of course not! I didn't consider the point of view of the song - from the perspective of a man who has at least robbed a large sum of money, who didn't think he deserved redemption. It's a typical theme in Southern music, but I fell into the trap of taking the song very superficially.

How about their first well-known song, Poison and Wine?
"Your mouth is poison, your mouth is wine"

"I don't love you, but I always will"

Honestly, I was disappointed in myself for tripping up over something that wasn't there. Listening deeper, their lyrics like from Poison and Wine talk about the dichotomy in a relationship that is so strong that sometimes you can't stand the person, but you can't be without them. It is honest and provocative in the presentation, but it speaks to a dynamic those of us who have been in a deep relationship can identify with, even if we can't speak the sentiment.

I'm glad that I can realize and own up to my hypocrisy. Quality art, when it has depth, will challenge us in our preconceived ideas if we let it. If we get tangled up with a superficial glance, then we will miss out on the riches beneath.

The Civil Wars are a band that has found a niche the two artists would never have found alone. I applaud them for their music, and I applaud Joy for running in a new direction. By the way, they are produced by Charlie Peacock, head of the Art House, and a strong Christian who is a creative genius. Also, they sing a song in their live set, "Pray", that is a strong tune for crying out to Him, without succumbing to Christianese. The surface can be deceiving - the truth lies deeper than that.

Here's to mining the riches that Jesus our Creator, our Master Artist, has for His people!

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The Civil Wars - Barton Hollow

I love it when artists can challenge us.
Hopefully you have heard about The Civil Wars by now. The duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White have made a big splash in the last few weeks with their debut album, Barton Hollow, releasing on Feb. 1. I'd say appearing on The Tonight Show and having their album be #1 on iTunes for its first week as a pretty good start.

Their music is haunting and beautiful, stripped down to the basics: White's guitar, some occasional piano by Williams, the scattered accordian or percussion, and the intertwining harmonies of the two singers. In this day of auto-tuned, electronic noise being blared on iThingies and the random Super Bowl halftime show (brought to you by Lite-Brites), the organic, simple nature of these songs works into your soul. As opposed to bashing us over the head.

Their style would be best described as folk or Americana, although it resists easy labeling. They hail from Nashville and are getting airplay on CMT, but I wouldn't call them country (especially to those who know me - I'm not a country music fan). The point is that they make lovely music together. A majority of the songs are slow paced with a melancholy feel, longing for love. The title track is a foot-stomper with soaring vocal gymnastics, while "Poison and Wine," featured on an episode of Grey's Anatomy speaks in a raw, honest way about the dichotomies of love.

The two singers are refreshingly real in a day of pre-packaged artists fed to top 40 radio. I was intrigued when I found they were produced by Charlie Peacock, one of my favorite artists himself. They aren't the typical music I would listen to, but I'm all for quality, and their musicianship and chemistry makes Barton Hollow my first album purchase of 2011, and one of my favorites in a long time.

In my next point, I want to discuss how they are not only easy on the ears, but challenging to some of my convictions as well. Keep your eyes peeled for that, if you will.