Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Gratuitous Music Video


I happened to notice that an artist I much admire, Lindsey Stirling, a violinist, has a brand new music video out, this one with a sort of Inception-esque dreamscape thingy going on, so I thought I might as well share it.

I note in passing that Stirling, like many talented artists of the present day, is Mormon. When the Mormon missionaries came by, I should have let them know that their arguments would have been much more persuasive if they'd brought along Lindsey Stirling. In fact, if they stop by again, I might tell them that: s end Lindsey Stirling first, and then we'll talk.

Friday, March 20, 2015

An Evening with the Mormon Missionaries.


So I had the Mormon missionaries over this evening.  It is my humble opinion that when the Catholic finds the proselytizers of another sect at his door, the polite and Christian thing to do is to show them all courtesy.  Hospitality demands it, and it is an opportunity to witness to the Gospel.  Besides, I've done similar work (I've cold-called, and I've gone door to door offering paint jobs), and it is decidedly miserable, so I thought the deserved a break in the form of a guy who doesn't slam a door in their faces.

I've known others who've been unable ever to get rid of Mormon missionaries after inviting them in.  If such misfortune befalls in this case, I may have to explain, perhaps even brusquely, that the welcome has been overstayed, but I see nothing wrong with allowing them to make a few visits, within reason.

When the two elders, both younger than I, arrived, I sat them down and asked them if they were allowed to drink herbal tea.  They said they were, so I made them each a cup.  Then I started with some philosophical matters, first asking if it were true that the Mormon Church teaches that the universe is made from uncreated matter, and that God the Father was originally a man.  They said that was correct, so I explained that contingent, material beings logically require a first cause that is not contingent, and that this first cause is ordinarily called God, and must be the greatest being since an effect cannot be greater than its cause, and therefore the one they worship, though he might be a great saint or a god with a lowercase g, could not be God properly so-called.

This might have gone over their heads.  I'm not sure.  Later in the conversation, one of them said God was the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and that he was the source of all truth.  I replied that if he did not originate all things, he could not be the source of all truth, and that if he was once a man, then he was not the same yesterday, regardless of what he might be today or tomorrow.  At that point, the fellow hedged and said the belief that God was once a man was speculation and not doctrine, so I dropped the subject.

They described, as I expected, Joseph Smith's first vision, which is supposed to have occurred when various churches were undergoing revivals and Smith was confused about which to join.  Regardless of whether Smith actually experienced the discouragement and consternation during the Second Great Awakening in the Burned-Out District that he claimed to, it makes for a good story; anyone who has ever asked like Pilate, "What is truth?" can relate to it.  I told them I had a similar experience of disheartenment on account of the schismatical tendencies of Protestant sects, and that like Smith I came to recognize the need for an authoritative Magisterium to prevent the constant division caused by the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, but that I found that Magisterium in the Catholic Church rather than creating it myself.

I told them also that many others besides Joseph Smith have claimed that the Church committed a Great Apostasy and that they have restored true and sound doctrine, and I asked them specifically why I should prefer Smith and the Book of Mormon to Muhammad and the Quran, since Muhammad made the same claims and also came with a book.  They dodged that without answering it.

I told them flatly that I think the Book of Mormon, with its skin color obsession and its speculation about an Israelitish origin of the Mound Builders, looks like a text written in the Nineteenth Century in America by someone with a King James Bible and an imagination, and that it was probably Rigdon's creation based on Spaulding's unpublished novel.

One of the guys was rather meek and quiet.  The other was zealous but clearly didn't like to deviate from his memorized lecture, and I had him by the end retreating to giving his testimony, by which I mean he affirmed that he knows, by private confirmation from God, that the Book of Mormon is true.  That of course is wholly subjective and thus can't be argued—which is the point.

This segued into an emotional appeal, the request that I find God through the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ.  I ended with an emotional appeal of my own, telling them that Catholics, Mormons, and Evangelicals are allies, not enemies, in the culture wars, and that we must circle the wagons together, but that the best way to present a united front would be under the banner of the Catholic Church, which alone is wide enough in her embrace to take all of us.  As an example of this, I contrasted the Mormons and their high view of marriage with the Shakers and their celibacy, and said that there is room in the Catholic Church for both forms of spirituality.

(I thought the Shakers originated at the same time and in the same place as the Mormons, but upon looking them up, I find I'm mistaken, or rather, it's a little more complicated than that, but no matter.)

They of course asked me to read the Book of Mormon, and I said I would do so if they would read the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  They agreed, and we exchanged books.  I do not intend to press them to find out if they will keep their end of the bargain, but I must keep mine, so I have some reading to do once Lent ends.

I was hoping for vigorous but friendly debate.  Instead, I think it was more like my debating interrupting their canned spiel.  I don't fault them for this, as these elders are both kids.  But I found it to be a pleasant evening, and I hope they did as well.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

'Rag & Muffin' Sneak Peek


I haven't posted much lately because I'm in the field right now, but also because I am working on Rag & Muffin, my magical girl novel, and am not good for much else at the moment.  I expect to have the book in final draft form by end of the summer, at which point I'll start my rejection slip collection while I work on the second volume, which is currently under the working title of Rag Dolls, and will feature Miss Rags teaming up with her evil but gentlemanly yet decidedly foppish mad scientist pediatrician.

Rag & Muffin has taken me a long time to produce, largely because my vision of it has changed drastically since I started (it was originally so lurid and gruesome that I can hardly stand to look at the earliest drafts), and also because the amount of research necessary has intensified since I decided firmly on a more "real-world" setting (it takes place in a heavily fictionalized version of the British Raj).  Also, as a new writer, I had to, as they say, "get the suck out" and write loads and loads of amateurish junk before I could produce something of professional grade.  But in spite of the struggle, I have stuck with this particular story for years, because more than anything else I've written or tried to write, I believe in Rag & Muffin.

The following is an excerpt from the first chapter, showing the condition the story is in now.  This guy Heatfreak is one of three characters in the story who exist mostly for the purpose of getting their clocks cleaned, and as with most of the characters in this book, I knew Heatfreak's name before I knew why he had that name.  Only as I was rewriting this sequence did I realize it was a nickname he received on account of the tapas generated by his Yogic exercises.

Anyway, in addition to being a fight scene, this introduces two of the R&M universe's three forms of magic.



The young soldier in the runeship was Simon Achilles Palmeiro, and he was a zealot. An idealist in love with the romantic vision of a world stripped of barbarism and united in a single civilization, he had eagerly enlisted in the Elysian army at the age of sixteen. Not long after, he had embarked on his first tour of duty in Godtown. Once he arrived in the holy city, he quickly became intrigued by the mendicants he saw seated blissfully on their mats in the dark corners of parks and courtyards: their peacefulness and self-mastery stirred something in him—yet, at the same time, their apparent passivity repulsed him.

For a long while, he could not sort out these feelings, but everything became clear when for the first time he saw a demonstration of Sastravidya. On a broad ghat beside the Ganga, under the noonday sun, he had gaped as two thickly muscled marjaras, stripped to the waist, drove at each other and fought with a combination of open-handed strikes and acrobatic grappling. They swung their arms in wide, showy arcs and flipped their bodies through the air, yet they never lost control or let down their guard.

Simon decided then and there that he wanted to learn their techniques. He found a guru, and soon he was spending every spare minute in meditation and breathing exercises, focusing his mind and learning to control the prana flowing through his body. He went through rigorous and painful exercises, balancing for hours on one foot or on one hand. He gave up meat, and he gave up booze. He even gave up women. In time, his ascetic disciplines generated so much tapas that he often returned to the barracks at night with a searing heat radiating from his body, and thus he earned his nickname—Heatfreak.

As he gained steadily in power, he found yet another master who could teach him to focus his prana and turn it into a weapon, for Heatfreak in his yogic meditations sought neither to cleanse his karma nor to realize Brahman. Heatfreak wanted to fight.

And now, as the runeship lifted, he saw on the roof below him a worthy enemy on whom he could demonstrate his skills. It was against orders. He was risking a court martial.

But he didn’t care.


He glanced over his shoulder at Darcangelo, who leaned over the sickly little girl to check the IV attached to her arm. “You’ll make it to the hospital okay, Doc,” Heatfreak said. “I’m gonna take care of the witch.”

Darcangelo snapped his head up and reached out to grab him, but Heatfreak slipped from his grasp and, with a laugh, leapt from the runeship’s door. After landing lithely, he doffed his helmet, ripped open his flak jacket, and tossed both to the ground. Raising his fists, he called a challenge across the rooftop: “Hey, little girl, you wanna play with me?”

With rapid chain punches, Rags was pummeling one of Heatfreak’s squad mates. She paused, looked up, and tossed her victim aside like a rag doll.

“Okay,” she said, “but I play rough!”

Her pink dress flared as she ran at him.


Heatfreak launched himself forward, slid across the roof, moved into a crouch, and aimed a sweep for Rags’s legs. She leapt and kicked for his head, but he blocked with a raised forearm. She twisted in the air, landed on her hands, flipped to her feet, and went into a hook kick. He blocked with a cross-kick and then spun around into a hook kick of his own. Rags ducked it, jumped onto her hands again, and shot her feet back and over her head toward Heatfreak’s torso, catching him in the side. He slid backwards and grabbed his ribs where she’d struck him.

It stung. He winced.

“How does a girl your size get that strong?”

Rags pushed a loose strand of auburn hair behind one ear. “I work out.”


Crossing his legs, he dropped into a basic resting stance. “You’re a cheeky little thing. Didn’t your mum ever teach you any manners?”

“Didn’t your mum ever teach you not to hit girls?”

“She said I could hit naughty girls who are out past their bedtime.”

A grin spread Rags’s lips, exposing canine teeth just a little too pointy to be human. “Funny. I do the same thing to naughty boys.”

He made hooks with his hands and closed again, hoping that with the Eagle Claw technique, he could incapacitate her with a few dislocations or pressure point strikes. His limbs were longer than hers, but after she landed the first blow, he realized how seriously she had him at a disadvantage: a Sastravidya practitioner learned always to watch his opponent’s eyes, but Rags was a hybrid, so Heatfreak didn’t dare. Hybrids could do strange things with their eyes—more than once in their first engagement, her bright green eyes had begun to draw him in, and he had to check himself. That slowed him down.

Besides, in spite of his love of fighting, he found he couldn’t bring himself to go all out. She was an infamous criminal, tough as a tank and with a punch like a sledgehammer, but she was still a little girl. Maybe if it weren’t for her curly hair, her bright voice, and her nancy outfit, he could have made himself hit her as hard as he wanted.

Maybe.

Now he wished he’d stayed in the runeship. He wanted this fight over with quickly, and he figured the best way was to move in close, avoid her eyes, and break a couple of her limbs.

But she clearly knew what he was doing. Keeping her body loose and fluid, she slid out of his grasp and slapped aside his every attempted strike, giggling like a child petting a dog. She was toying with him.


He felt a faint twinge of panic, so he changed his technique again and moved into a rapid series of punches and chops. Once he had her fighting more vigorously, he took the chance to draw in close. Twice she tried to kick, but he counter-kicked to keep her feet on the ground.

It didn’t work. She slipped through his defenses, smashed her right fist into his gut, and doubled him over. She tried to plant an uppercut on his chin as well, but he blocked that and recovered.

He now had an idea of her preferred methods. In particular, the move she had used early in the fight to land her first blow had been an extravagant one. Such a move she had no doubt practiced until it was almost automatic.

He feinted with a roundhouse kick, and, as he expected, Rags dove onto her hands again to duck his foot. Arresting his kick midway, he twisted his hips and drove his heel hard into her back, sending her sprawling face-first into the roof. Her little top hat came unpinned from her bangs and rolled away.

#

The fight had lasted less than a minute, and the runeship was still making its silent lift-off, though it now hovered a hundred feet in the air. While Juliet saw to the patient, Darcangelo, with his thin lips womanishly pursed, stared out the open door. At last, he sucked in his breath and slapped a hand against his knee.

“Nurse,” he said, “take over. I’ll join you later.”

“Doctor,” Juliet cried, “what about the serum?”

Darcangelo gave her a weary shrug. “I’m sorry, but there are some things a gentleman cannot witness without making reply, and one them is the sight of a lady being struck.”

He tipped his hat before pulling it down firmly over his ears, snatched up his medical bag and umbrella cane, and dove out the door.

“Doctor!” Juliet shrieked.

Being in a hurry, Darcangelo didn’t bother to make use of the flying technique, which could have slowed his descent and allowed for a graceful landing. Instead, he merely raised his prana and counted on his hardened body to absorb the impact. He fell swiftly, trench coat fluttering, and cracked the rooftop when he struck.

But he had miscalculated: the blow drove the wind from his lungs, and, with a faint groan, he slumped.

#

Rags raised her head. She wiped a hand across her nose as tears gathered in her eyes. Her lip protruded in a pout.

Heatfreak stood over her. “You lose, Ragamuffin. Now come quietly or a bad little girl’s going to get punished.”

Her tears glistened in the reddish light, the light caught his attention, and then his eyes met hers.

He had only the briefest moment to realize his mistake. He tried to twist his head and look away, but her green eyes flashed and arrested his gaze as if his neck were locked in a vice.

Then her Sammohana overwhelmed him.

His thoughts ceased. The little girl lying on the rooftop evaporated into the air. In her place arose a goddess, tall and stately and clothed in flaming red, terrible and beautiful beyond any concept he had previously had of terror or beauty. Her shapely lips were pressed together in a stern but silent rebuke, and her eyes pierced through to his heart. Seven of her eight hands held the symbols of her office as well as her weapons—the conch, lotus, bow, chakran, sword, trident, and thunderbolt—but the eighth hand pointed an accusing finger.


He sank to his knees. Like a hammer blow, the realization struck him that all his ablutions and rigors had been mere child’s play, mere dabbling. He had struggled, he had denied himself so that he might have power, but now he knew his ascesis was empty. It was not enough for the goddess. Nothing he could do was enough.

Towering above him, her incomparable face impassive and severe, she spoke to him a single word of command, and he had no choice but to obey.

#

Rags could sense the gland in the base of her skull squeezing tight as it pumped Heaven Seed up into her brain. She could feel power and heat radiating from her eyes, flowing out from her and into Heatfreak. His own eyes wide and flowing with tears, his body shaking, he dropped to the roof and mumbled to himself like a halfwit.

She had him now. She could make him do whatever she wanted.

She climbed to her feet, brushed her hands down the front of her dress, and told him to beat his head on the rooftop until he passed out. Then she crossed her arms and watched, bored, while he completed the task.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

'Rag and Muffin' Update


The eyecatch image up there is actually from the light novel series Gosick, which was adapted into one of my favorite anime shows (and which I just found out is no longer free online . . . curses!).  Anyway, I thought it made an appropriate header because Victorique and Kujo look vaguely like how I picture Miss Rags and Nicky from my novel in progress, Rag & Muffin.

I have just spent the day editing and rewriting chapter eight of twenty.  It's coming along.  I'll go over it with a red pen and then go on to chapter nine.  Once I get through all twenty chapters one-by-one, I'll give the whole thing one more go-through, and then it's time to start my rejection slip collection.

It's gonna happen.  I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Recently, I tested the first few chapters on a fresh reader who doesn't normally read science fiction or fantasy.  Her response was quite positive.  Most importantly, and the main reason I wanted her to try it out, she wasn't put off by all the Hindi and Sanskrit words, which she thought she could understand in context.  That was a relief.

This book has taken an enormous amount of research, which probably took longer than it had to because I'm both pedantic and disorganized.  Much of the editing process has been fact-checking.  Last week, I was reading all about sniping or watching videos on the same.  The week before that, I was reading about airsoft because I decided to make one of the kids an airsoft player; this gives me a crazier yet somehow more plausible explanation than I had originally for how he falls in with the story's anti-heroes, since he doesn't realize until he's already in neck-deep that the other kids' guns aren't replicas.  Probably a bit of Full Metal Panic! influence in there, which I'm okay with, since as a test reader said of an earlier version, the story is "manga up to its bowtie."

Then I spent three hours on Friday evening just deciding how one of the sidekick characters, the upper-class British schoolgirl with diplomatic immunity, would sling her assault rifle.

Aaaand I actually spent most of the day yesterday trying to figure out the correct word for my heroine's underwear.  Great googly moogly, I knew Nineteenth Century fashion was complicated, but that was insane.  That was a rabbit hole I was not prepared to go down; I was just sort of like, "Are these bloomers or pantelettes?"  And it turns out that's a really complex question.  I eventually found some sources that appeared to know what they were talking about, though they didn't entirely agree with one another.  Also, steampunk cosplayers don't know crap.

Today, I actually got a lot of writing done, but then I was back to double-checking some of the medical stuff.  I think I've got a handle on the medical technology for this alternate universe:  I didn't want MRIs or CT scans because that seemed too tech-y, so I had them checking a girl for brain tumors with a cerebral angiogram.  I hope that makes sense.

Whew.  Next chapter, I can get back to the parts where they shoot people and break things.  Got a scene involving magical transforming mecha and demon-possessed powered armor coming up.  I look forward to that.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Writing for Message, not to Entertain

I originally wrote and published this essay on this blog many, many moons ago, but I think it apropos to reprint it in light of recent discussions of Social Justice Warriors and their determination to place message above entertainment in storytelling. Read this and see if it sounds familiar.

Many Christian readers of sf, apparently feeling burned by the bad output for which explicitly Christian sf publishers have become famous, have drawn the conclusion that religious content in a work of fiction ought always to be slight, referenced only in delicate, tangential ways. Usually, in their support, they cite J.R.R. Tolkien's well-known dislike for religious allegory. I used to be in this crowd myself.

I have since moderated my views, mainly because of the many good books with explicit religious content. Anyone who lays a blanket condemnation on allegory or preaching will be at a loss to explain The Pilgrim's Progress, which is basically a collection of sermons and ham-fisted allegories as well as an acknowledged classic.

The problem with Christian sf is, I'm inclined to believe, more complex. First, it's possible that its badness has been exaggerated, as there are some decidedly talented authors writing in the field. Second, it's possible we have judged a fledgling sub-genre with the standards of a fully developed one: sf in its early days was largely literary tripe; standards of quality improved over time as the genre developed. Third, while religious content, in and of itself, will not ruin a story, the content of the religion in question might: I am inclined to believe that pop psychology-influenced Fundamentalism does not make a solid basis on which to build good fiction, yet it forms the basis of far too many Christian sf novels. Fourth, some authors may approach their fiction in the wrong way, forgetting that good fiction must begin with certain aims, the first of which is to tell an entertaining story. A Christian author who forgets that may fall prey to what I have decided to call Sheldonism, the belief that storytelling ought to serve no purpose other than to preach a Christian message.

Sheldonism, the bad new term I'm blatantly trying to coin, is the tendency to write like Charles Sheldon, or more accurately, write according to Sheldon's view on writing. Charles Sheldon, a Congregational pastor, advocate of the so-called Social Gospel, and novelist, was fond of telling extended parables, called sermon stories, to his congregation in place of a regular sermon (Smith 2007:201). Such stories would also be published. In His Steps, Sheldon's most famous novel, is a collection of such sermon-stories, preached in 1896 and subsequently published (Tanner 1999). In it, he presents the question that would later come to adorn key chains and tee-shirts, "What would Jesus do?" or WWJD for hip young people who, unlike me, are not acronym averse. Sheldon's gimmicky basis for Christian morality is well meaning but inadequate, mostly because it's vague and almost entirely subjective. Nonetheless,

The answers in the novel exude Social Gospel confidence, suggesting that any "genuine, honest, and enlightened Christian" could figure out what the Savior portrayed in the Gospels would do. Sheldon's characters come up with the answers with a good dose of sociological analysis and a minimum of biblical citation. [Lovin 2006:35]

Sheldon's novel was a bestseller even though it has no particular interest in entertainment per se and even though it keeps going for about a hundred pages after the story is over. Though Sheldon certainly lays it on thick, his prose and characters are interesting, and the plot, all things considered, isn't too bad. To the modern reader, the heavy focus on the Temperance Movement may seem quaint or naive, but the novel is of course a product of its time and doesn't deserve to be judged by Americans who live after the period of Prohibition, when alcohol is well regulated in both production and sale, when people no longer speak of a significant "whiskey lobby" in Congress, and when the western frontier and its associated alcohol abuse are in the distant past. Sheldon did not write of social evils from an arid academic post, either; he spent a good deal of time with people on the streets and became an early Civil Rights advocate after discovering that racism was causing the poverty of the Black population in Topeka, Kansas (Armstrong 2005:45).

In His Steps has something to say not only to Christians generally, but to a few specific occupations in particular: pastors who preach the word, newspapermen who can expose the roots of society's evils, and novelists who can potentially write inspiring stories are all featured in the book. It is not surprising that the novelist holds a special place, for, according to Smith, In His Steps is one of a number of Social Gospel novels that appeared during the Third Great Awakening, all of which were "self-consciously about print culture, making clear that founding the kingdom of God here on earth depends on making appropriate use of books and literacy" (2007:194). As Smith describes, some other books of the period such as Mary Augusta Ward's Robert Elsmere, which influenced Sheldon, or Wiston Churchill's Inside of the Cup, depict books, especially books of biblical criticism, as a means of salvation from orthodox Christianity, destroying the faith of the orthodox but rebuilding them as social reformers and truer followers of Jesus (2007:195-199). By contrast, though some describe Sheldon as a "liberal," and though he held, according to Smith, unorthodox views on certain matters such as the Virgin Birth (2007:199-200), his novel is shot through with supernaturalism. Nonetheless, it avoids getting mired in the theological debates between liberals and Fundamentalists. The wide popularity of the novel is probably due in part to this self-conscious ecumenicism; the denomination of the characters is ambiguous, and they spend no time discussing theological matters, which are clearly placed in a subordinate position to the matter of "what Jesus would do."

Rather than describing literature as a means of liberation from Christian doctrine as some of his contemporaries did, Sheldon prefers to limit its usefulness; the really important thing is whether any written work inspires people to be more Christlike. Anything else is a waste. In the same vein, Sheldon generally avoided serious theology because of "the irrelevance of doctrine to his practice-based religion" (Smith 2007:200), a way of thinking that still characterizes some strains of Evangelicalism. This dislike for doctrine may explain why Sheldon's famous ethic consists of four words that defy interpretation.

Admirable as Sheldon's philanthropy is--and the call to social action in In His Steps is still powerful and stinging--his novel breaks down precisely because of this lack of doctrine. What, exactly, would Jesus do? The question is always posed as an intensely personal one, one nobody can answer for anybody else, one that has no objective answer. The question becomes all but useless, "What do I think is the best thing to do?" with Jesus slapped onto it. When all is said and done and the novel is over, we find that every man did that which was right in his own eyes: it just happens that in Sheldon's world, every man is noble and self-sacrificing (except the novelist, but more on that in a moment). The book has good intentions, of course, but is as unrealistic as the more liberal Social Gospel novels to which it might be considered an antidote. In the real world, behavior stems from belief, and people work to shape the world to accord with their ideals. Noble ideals inspire noble behavior: a gracious god incarnate who offers stern threatenings and great comforts, who says, "Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me," is an ideal from which a Christian can readily work to improve social conditions or do anything else worth doing. But if the Christian believes nothing specific about Jesus, or if he believes Jesus is nobody particularly special, he has no basis for saying what Jesus would do or not do, and no reason for wanting to imitate Jesus anyway. In the world of Charles Sheldon, every man gets his own personal Jesus, and not only that, he gets to be his own personal historical Jesus scholar: you too can redesign Jesus according to your preferences, just like Marcus Borg or John Dominic Crossan, no arduous classroom study required. In our own age, we can see what this has devolved into: our liberals champion improving the lot of the poor even as they advocate murdering people by the millions. There is no telling what awful things Jesus might do if everyone gets to invent Jesus for himself.

Sheldon's view on fiction is similar to his view of doctrine: it is useful only insofar as it serves a practical purpose, which is "eliciting powerful emotions, changing people's hearts and minds" (Smith 2007:201) so that they may serve the cause of the Social Gospel. This is the goal of In His Steps, and in that sense may be seen as similar in aim to Dominique Lapierre's City of Joy, though it lacks Lapierre's finesse. It is in his view of fiction that Sheldon's ideas become visibly self-contradictory. Even though he strains against judgmentalism and tries to keep the question of what Jesus would do a personal one, he condemns novelists who do not serve the Social Gospel; apparently, Sheldon knows exactly what Jesus would do if Jesus were in their shoes. As Smith puts it, "Sheldon did not think most authors met their obligations to make the world a better place, one Christian heart at a time" (2007:201).

This is clear in Sheldon's treatment of his novelist character in In His Steps. To lay out the situation, we have a talented novelist, Jasper, who is in love with a talented singer, Rachel. Both of them, along with the other central characters in the book, have pledged, for an entire year, to do nothing before pondering that famous question, WWJD? In the relationship between these two, Sheldon presents the classic (or perhaps cliched) motif of the sensitive, idealistic artist in love with a cold woman who spurns him, thereby inspiring him to starve in a garret while creating his masterpiece.* This is the motif, oft repeated in both fiction and real life, of which Dante's love for Beatrice is the most commonly cited--and extreme--example, and which George Bernard Shaw parodies in Man and Superman. Sheldon gives this familiar story an interesting twist by adding a spiritual dimension--which doesn't bode well for poor Jasper.

Two passages in the novel are of particular importance to this discussion. The first is the one in which Jasper openly proclaims his love for Rachel. He chooses a bad time for this, at least according to Rachel's clock. In the scene previous, Rachel had sung at a tent revival meeting, the Holy Spirit had swept through the tent, and many of the city's most destitute and besotted citizens had given their life to Christ and a future of betterment away from the bottle. Shortly after that, moved both by Rachel's singing and his own passion, Jasper reveals his heart. The quote is long, but please bear with me:


"Rachel," Jasper had said, and it was the first time he had ever spoken her name, "I never knew till to-night how much I loved you. Why should I try to conceal any longer what you have seen me look? You know I love you as my life. I can no longer hide it from you if I would."

The first intimation he had of a repulse was the trembling of Rachel's arm in his. She had allowed him to speak and had neither turned her face toward him nor away from him. She had looked straight on and her voice was sad but firm and quiet when she spoke.

"Why do you speak to me now? I cannot bear it--after what we have seen to-night."

"Why--what--" he had stammered and then was silent.

Rachel withdrew her arm from his but still walked near him. Then he had cried out with the anguish of one who begins to see a great loss facing him where he expected a great joy.

"Rachel! Do you not love me? Is not my love for you as sacred as anything in all of life itself?"

She had walked silent for a few steps after that. They passed a street lamp. Her face was pale and beautiful. He had made a movement to clutch her arm and she had moved a little farther from him.

"No," she had replied. "There was a time--I cannot answer for that--you should not have spoken to me--now."

...

Rachel went up to her room and faced her evening's experience with conflicting emotions. Had she ever loved Jasper Chase? Yes. No. One moment she felt that her life's happiness was at stake over the result of her action. Another, she had a strange feeling of relief that she had spoken as she had. There was one great, over-mastering feeling in her. The response of the wretched creatures in the tent to her singing, the swift, powerful, awesome presence of the Holy Spirit had affected her as never in all her life before. The moment Jasper had spoken her name and she realized that he was telling of his love she had felt a sudden revulsion for him, as if he should have respected the supernatural events they had just witnessed. She felt as if it was not the time to be absorbed in anything less than the divine glory of those conversions. [pp. 81-82]

Ouch. Apparently, in Sheldon's (or Rachel's) world, God and love occupy separate spheres that are not to be intermingled; to profess love shortly after a detectable movement of the Holy Spirit is to do something profane in the presence of something holy.

Personally, I much prefer the depiction of the spurned lover in Caryll Houselander. Says Houselander, Jesus himself can be seen--


In the lover who, with his own hands, has laid his heart bare and shown all the subtlest tenderness of his sensitive mind and all the holy secret of himself, only to be scorned or met with indifference. Is not he Christ stripped of His garments? All that is holy looks absurd; all that is beautiful looks ugly: all that is secret is violated. He stands and bleeds. [The Reed of God, p. 117]

In Houselander's view, then, it would actually be Jasper who in this scene most resembles Christ, who is doing WJWD, revealing his love and in return receiving a scourging, which is given on a religious pretext, no less. Alas, Sheldon sides with Rachel in this matter, and from this point forward, the depiction of Jasper, when he is mentioned at all, is negative. So it always goes for the idealist romantic.

Alas, how easily things go wrong!
A sigh too much, or a kiss too long,
And there follows a mist and a weeping rain,
And life is never the same again.

Rachel's "revulsion" for Jasper and her and the other characters' subsequent badmouthing of him behind his back (prefaced with "I don't like to judge him but") make a fine example of where Sheldon's vague ethic leads. Though supposedly free from judgmentalism, anyone who holds to this personalized moral code can immediately turn it around and use it to whip someone else. Because Jasper doesn't have the same personal spiritual or emotional experience at the tent meeting that Rachel has, she decides he is base and unspiritual. With no sound objective truths to which they can anchor themselves, the characters of the novel find anchor in their own sentiments and experiences, which can be cruel taskmasters, especially when they are used to rule someone else. Many, many Rachels can be found at emotion-driven Charismatic churches.

In the next passage to be cited, Sheldon dispenses with Jasper completely. I beg your pardon again for quoting at length:


Early one afternoon in August, after a day of refreshing coolness following a long period of heat, Jasper Chase walked to his window in the apartment house on the avenue and looked out.

On his desk lay a pile of manuscript. Since that evening when he had spoken to Rachel Winslow he had not met her. His singularly sensitive nature--sensitive to the point of extreme irritability when he was thwarted--served to thrust him into an isolation that was intensified by his habits as an author.

All through the heat of summer he had been writing. His book was nearly done now. He had thrown himself into its construction with a feverish strength that threatened at any moment to desert him and leave him helpless. He had not forgotten his pledge made with the other church members at First Church. It had forced itself upon his notice all through his writing, and ever since Rachel had said no to him, he had asked a thousand times, "Would Jesus do this? Would He write this story?" It was a social novel, written in a style that had proved popular. It had no purpose except to amuse. Its moral teaching was not bad, but neither was it Christian in any positive way. Jasper Chase knew that such a story would probably sell. He was conscious of powers in this way that the social world petted and admired. "What would Jesus do?" He felt that Jesus would never write such a book. The question obstruded on him at the most inopportune times. He became irascible over it. The standard of Jesus for an author was too ideal. Of course, Jesus would use His powers to produce something useful or helpful, or with a purpose. What was he, Jasper Chase, writing this novel for? Why, what nearly every writer wrote for--money, money, and fame as a writer. There was no secret with him that he was writng this new story with that object. He was not poor, and so had no great temptation to write for money. But he was urged on by his desire for fame as much as anything. He must write this kind of matter. But what would Jesus do? The question plagued him even more than Rachel's refusal. Was he going to break his promise? "Did the promise mean much after all?" he asked.

...

...he turned to his desk and began to write. When he had finished the last page of the last chapter of his book it was nearly dark. "What would Jesus do?" He had finally answered the queston by denying his Lord. It grew darker in his room. He had deliberately chosen hs course, urged on by disappointment and loss.

"But Jesus said unto him, no man having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the Kingdom of God." [pp. 137-138]

Did you get that, novelists? What you care most about are money and fame. Even if your work is decent, if you don't write in any "positive" Christian way, then to hell with you. Literally. In Sheldon's "most famous work, the one unredeemed sin is not drinking, prostitution, or a life of crime, but instead the writing of conventional, popular society novels" (Smith 2007:206).

There's something faintly absurd in what Sheldon says about what Jesus would write. We know what Jesus would write: nothing, exactly what he did write. There is little purpose in asking what Jesus would have written had he been a novelist because Jesus was not a novelist. Jesus has left the novel-writing to us.

This is Sheldonism, a view of writing into which a Christian writer must not slip: fictional works should serve only the practical purpose of forwarding the Gospel, with no particular concern for entertainment or artistic quality. It is this kind of attitude that has probably done much to damage Christian fiction; a Christian writer who holds the presentation of his personal platform, or the theology of his church, as the goal of a novel, is almost certain to fall into the kind of poor, preachy writing for which Christian fiction has become infamous. The Christian writer who places sermonizing first and artistic concerns second or not at all, is in effect condemning art as a justifiable pursuit and beauty as a good. He is perverting beauty into a mere means of conveyance, one he can dispense with if he finds it inconvenient or too difficult to master.

Sheldon's viewpoint is somewhat understandable, though extreme; Smith hints that Sheldon was reacting to Aestheticism, which championed art for art's sake (2007:201), insisting that "all art is quite useless," as Oscar Wilde put it in The Picture of Dorian Gray. These two viewpoints, that art should be useless and that art should be useful but nothing else, can be considered two extremes that the Christian author would do well to avoid. Many of the poorer Christian works with their preachiness, flat characters, and unengaging plots, appear to fall into Sheldon's extreme, but now in reaction, many Christians are falling almost, but not quite, into the other extreme, insisting that good books will have at most only bare, nearly undetectable hints of religion. This is the other evil, the view that morals or religion are somehow ugly and that truly beautiful art has little or no concern for them. In reality, many books have proven that it is quite possible to create works of high artistic quality with religious meaning, even explicit and plain religious meaning.

However, though explicitly religious works of good quality are possible, this does not mean that every book must therefore be explicitly religious. We have no clear reason to think Jesus would condemn a novel in which the moral teaching is "not bad." If the moral teaching is not bad, then it is good and therefore does the very thing Sheldon thinks fiction should do, though such a book would not beat its readers about the head and shoulders with morality the way In His Steps does. Every book, whether the writer wills it or no, will teach something. Every novel has a moral element that may be good or bad, that may uplift the reader or drag him down. Oscar Wilde himself demonstrates this; in his relentless pursuit of art for art's sake, he somehow couldn't stop writing Christian morality tales. There is a use both for the good book without blatant Christian themes and the good book with blatant Christian themes. Each can do its readers some good, each can serve a noble purpose. The key to constructing each is careful craftsmanship that gives serious thought to the key elements of writing, like characters and conflicts. Outright preaching should be kept to a minimum for the same reason infodumps should be kept to a minimum, but if the author finds that either infodumps or sermons are absolutely necessary, they must be good infodumps or sermons, well constructed and provocative. The reason pop-psych Christian novels are bad is not because they're Christian, but because their sermons drone and have little real content. To be quite blunt, the explicit Christian novel needs more content than In His Steps if it is to be a work of art.

REFERENCES CITED

Armstrong, Chris
2005 "Holiness of Heart, Life, and Pen," Christian History and Biography 85:44-45.

Lovin, Robin.
2006 "Faith Matters." Christian Century 123.20:35.

Smith, Erin A.
2007 "'What Would Jesus Do?': The Social Gospel and the Literary Marketplace." Book History 10:193-221.

Tanner, Beccy
1999 "More than a century after he first asked his congregation 'What would Jesus do?' Charles Sheldon's book on the subject is one of the best-selling novels of all time." Wichita Eagle 16 June.


*Incidentally, I remember WWJD merchandise being popular when I was in high school. I used to interpret them as "We Want Jack Daniels" or "What Would Judas Do?" (My animosity toward acronyms has been life-long.) I also heard tell of a tee-shirt that read, "What Would Jesus Do for a Klondike Bar?" I stopped mocking WWJD when a young woman, on whom I had an overwhelming crush, rebuked me soundly. I subsequently retired to my garret, as was fitting, though I have yet to produce a masterpiece, probably because I haven't done too well on the starving part; after all, poets and horses should be fed, not overfed.