Ron Benrey is a widely published writer who has coauthored nine Christian romantic suspense novels with his wife Janet. Ron wrote two novellas independently and has written ten non-fiction books. His latest book, Know Your Rights, is an easy to understand guide to everyday law, will be published in December. Ron taught writing courses at the University of Pittsburgh. He currently teaches at major writers’ conferences on topics ranging from plotting and publishability, to Fiction After 50®, the fine art of becoming a novelist later in life. Ron holds a degrees in electrical engineering, management, and law. He’s a member of the Bar of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Ron and Janet live in North Carolina.
NJ: Ron delivered this keynote to the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference in May, 2010. He was gracious enough to allow Novel Journey to print it here.
Let Novel-Writing Teach You Christianity … and Vice Versa
Much of what I know about Christianity I learned from writing novels. I agree that’s a weird approach to studying theology. But what has surprised me even more is Christianity returned the favor and gave me lots of great advice about writing fiction.
To understand how all of this came about, you need to know I was a stubborn non-believer for most of my life, someone who saw Christianity as foolishness (to use Paul’s word). I considered the Incarnation the most nonsensical teaching of all. I couldn’t begin to accept that a Jewish carpenter in a jerkwater Roman province was also God.
But one August afternoon in 1998, I had a weird idea. I could write myself into my own novel. Ron Benrey, the author, could create a literary self-portrait: Ron Benrey, the character. If I did that, Me in the novel would be fully Author and fully Character, at the same time. I realized that a fictional self-portrait is a nifty way to model the Incarnation.
All at once, my mind shifted gears. When I thought of Jesus as God’s self-portrait, the other Christian teachings I’d rejected stopped seeming foolish. In about 30 seconds, I rocketed from non-believer to believer.
I know that my ideas about literary self-portraits didn’t pop into my head by accident. They were precisely what I needed to grab hold of the Incarnation. However, the fiction-writing analogy upsets some believers. I’ve been told on several occasions that true creativity belongs to God alone, that only He creates stuff ex nihilo (out of nothing). Although we think of ourselves “creative,” novelists merely move around pieces of God-created stuff. Consequently (the naysayers claim) comparing human creativity to God’s is the very essence of wrong thinking.
I’ve found that most of the folks who reject my favorite analogy aren’t novelists. They’ve never put together a complex storyline, or tamed an unruly character, or squeezed a three-hundred page story into a one-page summary. Novelists may not be creators with a capitol C, but it sure feels like we create fiction out of nothing.
Happily, there are sound arguments in favor of the fiction-writing analogy. Exhibit One is a statement from Dorothy Leigh Sayers, the late British mystery novelist, the creator of Lord Peter Whimsy. Dorothy was also a highly respected self-taught theologian, much like her good friend C. S. Lewis.
She wrote, “It may be perilous, as it must be inadequate, to interpret God by analogy with ourselves, but we are compelled to do so; we have no other means of interpreting anything. Man measures everything by his own experience. He has no other yardstick.”
That’s why scripture is chock full of figures of speech: similes, metaphors, and analogies: God as a Father. The Kingdom of God as a mustard seed. God’s grace as the wages paid to workers in a vineyard. Jesus as the Lamb of God, and a king, and a vine.
Two of the most important figures of speech are God the Creator and God the Maker of the Universe. Dorothy notes they also have meanings that reflect our human experience. “If they didn’t, they’d mean nothing at all to us.” This is because, “The experience of the creative imagination is the only thing we have to go on when we formulate the concept of creation.”
More evidence for the defense comes C. S. Lewis. He wrote, “Shakespeare could in principle, make himself appear as author within his play Hamlet, and write a dialog between Hamlet and himself. The ‛Shakespeare’ within the play would of course be at once Shakespeare and one of Shakespeare’s creatures. It would bear some analogy to the Incarnation.”
I consider “some analogy” a perfect example of British understatement! However, I admit that Clive Lewis was right to be cautious. All analogies are limited. They break down if you push them too far. We’re not characters living inside God’s novel. Nonetheless, thinking of myself as a creator of fictional worlds has yielded a steady stream of mind-opening theological perspectives.
One of the earliest came during an unusually lively meeting of my fiction critique group. I don’t remember why, but the discussion turned to whether mystery fans are loony because they enjoy reading about murder and mayhem. Someone said: “Mystery novelists are even loonier, because we enjoy writing about murder.” Someone else said: “True! In fact, everyone likes fictional homicide except the unfortunate characters we create. Imagine how they’d complain, if they could.”
For example, a victim might say: “You invented me, then killed me off in my prime. Why do such a thing?” And then the murderer might counter: “You made me poison the victim … and then you punished me for what I did. That’s not fair!”
While everyone else chuckled at the idea, and tried to invent snappy responses to their characters’ complaints, I thought about my fiction writing analogy. Back then, I was just beginning to study Scripture. I knew that a familiar Bible passage applied perfectly to the situation, but I couldn’t recall which one. Later that night, I tracked down Isaiah 55:8-9: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
For the first time, ever, I truly “got” that creatures can never understand the mind of the Creator. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to make sense of Christianity’s mysteries.
The Incarnation is the central miracle of our faith, but the Big Kahuna of Christian confusion is the Trinity. How can there be three divine “persons,” yet only One God? You’ve probably heard the maxim: “Try to deny the Trinity and you’ll lose your soul; try to understand the Trinity and you’ll lose your mind.” Some attribute that saying to Augustine of Hippo, although I think it was made up by some frustrated seminarian.
My original self-portrait analogy encompassed two out of the three persons. Is there a fiction-writing analog for the Holy Spirit? Yes indeed! Think of the “God-like” narrator in a third-person omniscient novel. The narrator guides the story, orchestrates the action, explains the heart and mind of every character. The narrator never appears, but is present behind the words.
If I wrote an omniscient novel with me as the protagonist, we’d all be there. Me the author/creator. Me the omniscient narrator. Me the rich, handsome, spectacularly lovable hero. (Clearly I’m writing a Romance.)
Of course, if the self-portrait model holds water, the Spirit analog should also be present in first-person fiction, and also in a third-person POV novel that doesn’t have an obvious narrator. He can be, if he precedes from Me the Novelist. I can send my Spirit analog to convict the lead characters, to comfort them, and to establish their all-important internal goals. And these days, I do send him.
My Spirit analog is at work in every story I write: poking, prodding, guiding, shaping the protagonist and the antagonist. And here’s another weird admission. I include my Spirit analog on my list of characters. I also give him specific tasks in my plot outline. Readers don’t know he’s present. Neither do the hero or the villain. But Spirit’s behind their consciences, their perceptions, their abrupt changes of heart.
This process of integrating the Spirit analog in my fiction writing went so smoothly, that months passed before I realized the self-portrait analogy had flipped roles. Christianity was giving me useful advice about writing fiction. I expanded my analogical experiments to see what else I could learn.
If you run the fiction-writing analogy backwards, a novelist seems to have modest powers of divinity, starting with transcendence. We’re outside “story time,” even if our novel spans a gazillion years. We can start writing at the end, or at the beginning. We can jump to any point in between. We’re also outside “story space.” We can switch locations instantly. The speed of thought is much faster than the speed of light. And once we get to the story time and story place of our choosing, we’re omnipotent down to our fingertips, with the power to make our will be done in our fictional worlds.
Whoa! I can hear you thinking: “Christian novelists ain’t so sovereign. We’re stuck with the “no-no” rules ordained by Christian publishers.” In fact, nothing stops us from bursting the bounds of the Christian fiction genre when we write. However, remember that omnipotence doesn’t include the power to do things that don’t make sense, like squaring a circle, or committing a logical fallacy.
The term “Christian fiction” is a label for a specific genre. Like any other genre (say mystery, romance, or historical) there are rules that reflect reader expectations. An author who sits down to write a “Christian novel,” but ignores the requirements of the genre, produces a different kind of novel. Not wrong, mind you; but different. That’s true whether the author seeks a traditional publisher or plans to take an alternative route to publication.
Tomorrow, we’ll bring you the second half of this post. You won’t want to miss it!