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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Trouble With Theme

by Athol Dickson


My wife Sue and I had dinner with Terry and Regina Jacobson a few weeks ago. Terry is a talented architect who specializes in designing churches, and Regina is a wonderful painter who explores spiritual themes. We had a good talk about the joys and challenges of expressing our faith in our work. At one point in the conversation I mentioned the strange fact that there’s no faster way to start an argument among people who write Christian fiction than to bring up the subject of theme.

“Right away, we divide into two camps,” I said, making two fists and putting one on the dinner table to my right, and the other on the table to my left. Lifting one fist I said, “Over here are authors who insist Christian novels have to kowtow to the most prudish people in the pews, and speak about the gospel so plainly it crosses the line into propaganda.” Lifting my other fist, I said, “But the authors over here think being authentic and relevant means we must show profanity and violence and sex realistically, and they’re willing to avoid all hint of Christianity rather than risk being seen as preachy.”

Nodding, my friend Regina zeroed right in on the problem. Pointing to one fist she said, “Too much truth.” Then she pointed to the other fist. “Too much grace.”

Regina knows her Bible. She knows you can never really have too much truth or too much grace. What she really meant was, not enough harmony.


People are like pendulums. We can’t seem to stop swinging from one extreme to the other.

Sometimes this is good. Passion is important. But in addition to passion, all the finest things in God’s creation have a sense of harmony. It’s true in Regina’s world, where the best painters pay as much attention to the background, or “negative space,” as they do to the subject matter, or “positive space.” And it’s true in fiction, where the best writers devote attention to theme, style, setting, plot and characterization without giving any one of those fundamental elements too much emphasis, or too little. Everything works together, harmoniously.

When we swing so far in one direction that we ignore or oppose the other end of the spectrum, it’s a sure sign we are lazy. It’s easier out there on the ends. The gray areas in the middle require much more work. In those middle places we can’t thoughtlessly accept simple black and white ideas; we have to think about everything. This applies to writing, and it applies to Christianity itself.

It’s lazy writing to layer a theme onto a story superficially and it’s lazy to turn one’s back on theme for fear of overstatement. That’s why a good writer will wrestle with a theme, always aware of the dangers of going too far, and always aware it’s just as dangerous not to go far enough. Some wrestle with their theme up front; others let the theme develop as they write and then go back to wrestle with it later. Either way this is a lot of work, but it’s also the only way to write a novel that matters.

Similarly, it’s lazy writing to demand thoughtless compliance with rigid rules simply to avoid causing offense, and it’s just as lazy to break those same rules merely to appear relevant or authentic to the outside world. A good Christian novelist will offend even fellow Christians if there’s no better way to make a point that should be made. A good Christian novelist will also do the extra work it takes to write about the fallen world without contributing to the fall. Jesus ate with prostitutes and “sinners” but not once did he emulate them.

A long time ago I was advised by a Jewish agent and an unbelieving editor to add a stronger spiritual subtext to a plot, only to be told later by a Christian author that the novel was too preachy. More recently, another Christian author assured me that my upcoming allegorical novel about God’s love is a waste of time, because only people who already know God will understand the symbolism. (I could not help remembering that God is not mentioned in the book of Ester, nor does that book contain any commentary on the actions of the characters. Apparently God trusts readers, even if we don’t.)

These experiences are fairly typical of what I’ve found in several organizations where Christian authors discuss writing. We often talk about how to create sympathetic characters, or how to write a page-turner of a plot, but amazingly enough, we almost never discuss how to communicate a theme. When it comes up we tend to flee to separate corners, with those on one side saying, “You abandon the gospel!” and those on the other side saying, “You write sermons, not novels!” The finger pointing is easier than doing the work it takes to speak to readers deep down, between the lines. Although we are all in the business of writing about Christian ideas one way or another, theme is a touchy subject.

Oh, the irony!

Whether the genre is romance, speculative fiction, mystery/suspense, general fiction or chick lit, writing about Jesus means letting go of safe assumptions and easy shortcuts. It also means approaching every novel as if it’s the first one we ever wrote in order to encounter our stories in a middle place where life is gray and complicated, because that’s where true harmony is found. This is only natural, since that harmonious yet complicated place is also where Jesus lives. The apostle
John tells us Jesus came “full of grace and truth.” Jesus never compromised on one for the sake of the other, and He calls us to live our lives the same way. Imagine the power and the glory if our novels did that, too.


“An epic suspense story spanning two centuries and brimming with magical realism.”

Lupe de la Garza, a simple shopkeeper in a mountain village in Mexico , believes God wants her to go to America to preach the gospel.
She is guided on her quest by her people’s greatest treasure: an altarpiece painted by the eighteenth century Franciscan friar who founded her village after fleeing the mysterious destruction of his California mission outpost.
When Lupe is distracted by desire for a young minister who rescues her from certain death in the Arizona desert, and when her preaching in a southern California beach town inspires only apathy and laughter, she begins to lose faith in her quest.
Then the slumbering evil that destroyed the friar’s Franciscan mission rises up again after two hundred years, and Lupe once more looks to the altarpiece for guidance, only to find the true purpose of her quest in the midst of her single greatest fear.

9 comments:

wilsonwriter said...

Great blog, Athol. I agree about the lazy aspects of avoiding truth and/or grace.

My favorite stories are always those that deal with life's messiness, yet find gospel truths within--books such as "East of Eden," "Lord of the Flies," and "The Good Earth."

Keep challenging us. I respect your writing, and hope to keep learning how to use theme to greater effect in my own.

Sheila Deeth said...

I could certainly relate to that. I wonder if the editors and writers in their separate camps aren't trying to put lots of round readers into square holes though.

sibella giorello said...

These are true words of wisdom:

"It also means approaching every novel as if it’s the first one we ever wrote in order to encounter our stories in a middle place where life is gray and complicated, because that’s where true harmony is found."

So true. That gray area is the messy, scary muddle where we're directed to go as novelists and as Christians, pursuing Him.

Thank you for making the link. Great post.

Mark Young said...

Thank you for tackling this difficult subject. I appreciate your thoughts and points on a subject that often divides. As an aspiring novelist, I struggle trying to write in this gray area with honestly and perceptiveness in a manner honoring God.

Looking forward to reading your new novel.

Johnnie said...

I printed this out to add to my fiction-writing notebook. My first novel is being considered by a publisher right now and I'm experiencing "submitter-doubts," particularly along these lines. Is the messiness of my protagonist's life too messy for this editor? For this publisher? And yet the messiness reflects the theme. So I thank you for this timely article.

Ane Mulligan said...

Wonderful post, Athol. I think we all need to let each author write what God puts on his or her heart without us imposing our idea of theme on them.

After all, God has a reader in mind for that story to reach, and even if it's only one, if we compromise our story theme with someone else's paradigm of theme, we'll have missed the mark, that reader.

My two cents, anyway. ;)

Daniel Smith said...

Great post!

Marcia said...

Thanks, Athol - great words to encourage me as I work on my second novel. :)Marcia

Kay Day said...

Great post! I agree with Ane in that I think we each need to do what we believe God is leading us to do. Chances are, following the Spirit's leading, some will write stories that lean to one side while others will lean to the other side. Because I believe there are readers out there for both sides. And then the Spirit will lead others to write those that fall in the middle. The kind I prefer to read.
If only, in this, and in all things, we could learn to look only to what the Lord expects from us. Write for an audience of One. That's what I want to learn to do.