Answering Questions About My Novel

Last week, someone showed me a review of my novel Fallen on Amazon. The reviewer, Keith Hammond, made my day with some very generous praise, and then raised an issue that I've encountered often:

My only complaint is that the story seemed too personal and allegorical to be completely fictional. I would have preferred the book to have an addendum where the author directly talks about the issues or situations that caused him to write such a compelling book.

The first person to make this kind of comment to me was one my editors at Kregel, who, during our line-by-line slog through the manuscript, said that the dialog was "a little too good." He wondered what experiences I had plundered. After the novel was released, my secretary gave it to a relative, who finished it and made the hair-raising assertion, "Obviously, Raley's had an affair." Then there are the youth at my church, who have dissected the story with frightening precision, tracing eccentricities and obsessions from my habits into my narrative.

If only they were so devoted to their schoolwork.

So I guess I'd better tell all.

From start to finish, Fallen is invented. I didn't model any character on a person I've known, nor have I ever had to endure what Jim, the narrator, goes through. I've found that fictionalizing real-life scenarios and personalities almost always yields a flat story because there is too much authorial judgment on the characters and too little sympathy. A novelist needs to keep his cool.

Yet, for me, Fallen is a personal book. Mr. Hammond and others are right. The book is personal in this sense: almost every vile act I portrayed in the story was invented from what I have seen in my own soul.

When I drew characters for the story, for example, I tried to load them with contradictions. Jim loves his wife and daughter, but also treats them with selfish disregard. He wants to be gracious, but gives favor with calculation. Pastor Dave is an emotionally driven man, yet he disguises his motives by intellectualizing. Also, Dave wants to see himself as compassionate towards others, yet his core motivation is self-pity.

Each of these contradictions -- and many others in my characters, male and female -- has its origin in some struggle of my own for integrity. I simply implanted my hypocrisies within the quite different personalities of my characters. I hate confessing this procedure, because it makes the story feel like public nudity. But that's what I did.

The same is true of the relational struggles that the book portrays. I put my follies into all of the marriages and working partnerships. I invented the male characters' misconceptions of women, from their flippant infatuations to their ordeals in marriage, out of similar misconceptions of my own. While the power struggles among church leaders in the book grew out of the invented scenarios, my own anger in sympathy with each character showed me how the struggles would deepen.

The crimes in Fallen, then, were not written as veiled reports but as shame-faced extrapolations.

There are two important differences between my approach and the method of fictionalizing personal experiences.

First, as a matter of technique, memoirs-as-novels start with scenarios and create characters to fit, which yields a false story. A human being is not a robot. Fictional human beings cannot be robots and be true. So I started with characters and then shaped the scenarios. Every day I wrote, the characters surprised me.

Second, I would only write a memoir-as-novel to vent bitterness. I may be unusual in this tendency, and other authors might have other motivations. But, as a matter of repentance, I don't write to vent. I used to. Creating a little world in which all of my judgments are validated can be satisfying. But writing such things does not edify anyone. I found the method of spreading my darkness among many characters to be sanctifying. Instead of judging the sins of others, I was able to examine my own.

This is a method that I feel bound to follow. The subject matter of Fallen does not need more angry scribblers. But, I hope, a repentant one might do some good.

Texas Pastor Caught In Sting

In view of the arrest of a pastor, Joe Barron, in Texas yesterday, I thought I would link to a post from some months ago about the distrust of pastoral authority. The issue of sexual immorality hit home this week with our family, as my wife found out that a former pastor of hers had been conducting affairs for years. Only individual repentance from all forms of sexual sin will save the church from these scandals. These are moments not to judge, but to pray for the Lord's mercy on his church.

Book Signing in Colorado Springs

My wife and I just returned from the Writing For the Soul conference in Colorado, where Fallen was a "staff pick" this year. The Christian Writers Guild has been a tremendous encouragement to me, not only through the excellent teachers they assemble, but also the editors and agents. I sold Fallen to Stephen Barclift at Kregel as a result of last year's conference. This year, the CWG staff put on a book signing for the "staff pick" authors, which was yet another encouragement. Many thanks to the Guild staff!

Abuse By Negligence

The emergent conversation often returns to the theme of churches' abuse of souls. In a post earlier this week, Len at NextReformation gave me another angle on soul-abuse, namely that the damage can come not only from aggression but also from neglect. Soul-abuse is repeatedly injuring a person's heart-and-mind -- doing so without seeking forgiveness or showing repentance, and while substituting slogans for integrity. Betrayal, guilt manipulation, and over-reach of spiritual authority are common types of soul-abuse.

The phrase is my expression for what many people feel they've experienced in churches. I think the phrase is problematic. Soul-abuse seems to want membership in the victimization lexicon, and that's a major turn-off for me. Individuals are responsible for their souls, including their reactions to injury. But, unfortunate connotations aside, I think the phrase is accurate. Many churches are injuring people's souls, injuring them repeatedly, and are not doing anything to repent.

Anger at the aggressive forms of this abuse abounds. A substantial proportion of American believers have had enough of churches run as businesses, of scandalous pastoral behavior, and of manipulative fundraising. Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna seems to tap into this anger, and has been much debated around the web over the last fortnight. (A hilariously negative review here; a judiciously positive review here.) My novel Fallen was written to dramatize crimes that have become all too common.

But soul-abuse by negligence is harder to pin down. Which brings us back to Len at NextReformation.

He comments that "we don't 'do fathering' very well." Len quotes Paul Fromont about churches' lack of parenting skills. "They’re not all that good at nourishing, accompanying, encouraging, and resourcing growth and increasing levels of Christian maturity." Len suggests that "the system [of churches] became rational more than relational and involved authority in offices rather than connecting it to wisdom."

I think Len is right. Many churches have become malls rather than gatherings, and the work of discipleship has tended to be done in classrooms. The results I have seen are dismal: busy people yearning to know who they are, unable to find a sense of kinship.

Churches used to operate in strong organic systems -- families, schools, volunteer associations, neighborhoods, charities, government. Local cultures in America used to be vibrant -- if far from perfect -- which meant that the impact of fathering was felt everywhere. A child not only had parents, but vigilant neighbors and teachers who reinforced shared values. The role of churches was to focus the spiritual priorities of people who already knew their own identities.

But in most of the nation now, localities are cultural wastelands of anonymity.

Churches, in my view, have done worse than ignore relationships. They have ignored fathering relationships -- the authoritative bonds that pass on ways of life and provide continuity from one generation to the next. Every church needs a core of strong, loving men -- every church. But few have such a core. We can't teach the Christian life in a class. Information is only helpful in the context of strong fathers who model application.

If this is true, then the most serious soul-abuse has been that of neglect. Churches have not built godly men, and as a result most new believers have not had models. Churches have injured people's hearts-and-minds by a failure to nurture.

This is certainly a criticism of the "religious activity" model of discipleship favored by traditional churches. But I don't see emergents making any progress on this issue either. Listening to the hurting is good and right. So is a missional approach to church structure and organization. Spiritual formation is a needed emphasis.

But, ultimately, loving fathers confront and do not yield. Is there an emergent model for this?