Tuesday, September 05, 2006

AG: The God Solution

Life is filled with paradoxes, especially life in the world of publishing. This occurred to me the other day as I contemplated the often convoluted universe of Christian publishing. In many ways, Christian novels are very similar to secular ones. They operate under the same basic rules of storytelling but have a little more freedom to explore the extra dimension of the spiritual life (or lack thereof).

Novels, like cakes, need certain ingredients. Every novel has a set of characters. It doesn’t matter if the characters are human or not. Characters can be animals as in Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, fantasy beings like Tolkien’s hobbits, robots, or actors based on real people (I still remember Jeffery Archer’s Shall We Tell the President? in which he sets up Ted Kennedy as president of the U.S.). What matters is that characters act true to their nature and interact with the others in a believable way.

Here’s where the irony comes in. In Christian fiction, God is always a character. He is considered, spoken of, prayed to, resisted, ignored, blessed, cursed, and endures every other imaginable response a flesh-and-blood person might have with the Almighty.

In Christian fiction the paradox is this: We expect the Christian characters to pray, to have faith, and to live as if God is active in their lives—except He’s not allowed to help in any obvious way.

From the Latin comes this familiar phrase: deus ex machina—“God from the machinery.” In ancient Greek theater, thespians called a device used to lower actors to the stage a “machine.” These actors often played one of the ancient gods and would be lowered to the stage to help or interfere with the storyline.

Today, any book presenting an deus ex machina ending gets a quick and inglorious trip to the trash can. I, like most writers who teach, have warned my students away from this literary evil. “The protagonist must solve the problem.”

To be honest, I’ve done it once. I used it in a novella for a Dutch publisher. I wrote it in 1998 and felt that a deus ex machina ending not only fit, but could be the only believable solution. I felt guilty doing it, like I had crossed the invisible line and would soon be exiled to the literary equivalent of a leper colony. At times, I thought I heard other writers whispering behind my back, “Psst, there he goes, Mr. Deus ex Machina.” Snickers would follow.
I had become unclean.

I am not a proponent of using the “God solution” in fiction. (Come on, I only did it once.) I understand the difficulties it can produce, but the irony amazes me. Every day, Christians pray what amounts to an appeal for deus ex machina. We want God to step in and heal, comfort, guide, bolster, correct and even work a miracle or two. Odd, that the very thing we ask for daily we refuse to tolerate in the fiction we expect to glorify God.

It seems that talk of faith is permissible in Christian fiction; acts of faith are welcome; discussions of faith encouraged; just so long as God doesn’t actually act on the character’s faith. We’ll accept, “God gave me the strength to do what had to be done,” but we cast off as literary slag any story wherein God manifestly intervenes.

I believe God works miracles, some grand, some hidden, but I acknowledge that God does most of his works through His followers. Most of the time we are called on to be the solution to our own problems and at times the problem of others. Perhaps that is why we prefer to see such solutions in the books we read. It is why I write such stories.

Still, if fiction is a creative mirror held up to reality, then shouldn’t there be allowances for the intervention of God? If we beseech God to intervene in our lives, then why would we ban His actions from our literature? Can you imagine standing over the sick bed of a friend and praying, “Heavenly Father, we ask for the touch of Your healing hand on our brother. In the name of Jesus we ask that you touch his body and make him well—but try to do it so that no one will know it was You.”

So what’s the solution? I don’t have one. Over use of the “God solution” is crippling to fiction, but to deny it in our work is to be unfaithful to biblical teaching and personal experience. The secular markets avoidance of the deus ex machina makes sense, but Christian fiction has that fourth dimension that sets it apart.

Are we afraid to use it?

Alton Gansky is a fulltime writer living in the High Desert area of southern California. He is the author of 17 novels and 6 nonfiction works. Visit his website at http://www.altongansky.com.


At 12:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Al, I understand what you're saying. It really can be a "sticky wicket" as our overseas cousins say. And I'll be the first to admit I did it in my own first Joe Box book. To put it in a nutshell, our boy was trapped in the penthouse of a burning building (after having first rather gruesomely disposed of the villian, natch), and realized his only way out was through the fire. The answer? He quoted a portion of scripture he'd recently read, and believed God would do it. The one that says, "when thou walkest through the fire, thou shall not be burned."

So he did. And he wasn't.

There was more to it, of course, but at that point in his life, having been a Christian for less than four months, Joe hadn't yet realized "God doesn't do those kind of things anymore" (hah!). So he simply took him at His word.

It was a neat fix (but I haven't made a habit of it since.)

At 7:47 AM, Blogger ~michelle pendergrass said...

There are many times when God responds to a prayer and we refuse to believe it was an answer from Him.

We think for some reason that our solution is the same thing as God's solution. When it works out to our liking we walk around with our chests puffed out and hands on our hips saying, "Yep. Look what God did for me. See here, I'm special, he answered my prayer."

When it doesn't work out to our satisfaction, we often say, "Satan is in this trying to steal my joy--or trying to stop the good work of the Lord"--or other similar excuses.

Yes, excuses. I understand that Satan is real and he's out there seeking whom he may devour, but to me, they're excuses (or the easy way out) because many peole don't take the time to read and study God's word so that they would have a slight understanding of His ways. The whole Bible is stuffed with stories of bad things that were watched over by God. Yes, all things work together for good for those that believe, but take note it says ALL things and it says for those that believe.

Which is to say that bad things happen and sometimes God lets them and even gives permission for them. The book of Job should be enough evidence for that, but for some reason Christians today think that life should be peachy and if they wear the right clothes and attend service and put a dollar in the homeless man's plate and every once in awhile say "Praise God" in front of an unbeliever that they should just have all the "blessings" they deserve for serving Christ. And as soon as something unexpected happens they're crying out to God, "Why did you do this to me?"

Yes, it makes perfect sense that if we don't want to live by God's ways and accept that he is the author of creative solutions than we certainly wouldn't want to read about that in our fiction.

At 9:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Christian fiction struggles with the deus ex machina because we all struggle with that view of God. God, help me find my glasses, instead of, God, give me your vision so I can see the world as you do.

The difference between 'secular' and Christian fiction is that Christian fiction gives the characters the chance to be changed by the power of the Holy Spirit.

God's intervention in circumstance is a glib solution to plot problems, but God is everything when it comes to transformation of character.

At 11:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When the work of the Lord in ALL its forms is captured creatively in fiction, I think it is the most entertaining to read. Small expectations and little faith produce an unimaginative view of God's unlimited power and a formulaic story.
I'm not speaking of convenience because other "solutions" can't be figured out. I'm speaking of magnificent moments when only God can provide a remedy. I've been there with Him, and He alone is amazing in His provision.
Sometimes Christians seem to fall into a "politically correct" religious philosophy in their thinking and their writing. "Every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of the heavenly lights." As writers, we need to give credit where credit is due.


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