How Much Wrong Teaching is Too Much?

There is an ongoing debate in Christian circles about whether non-fiction or fiction books are best. Proponents of each, particularly those firmly planted in their perspective camp, tend to be slightly (sometimes more than slightly) disdainful of the other. I have always maintained, however, that this is not an either/or proposition. As every good preacher (including Jesus) will tell you, it’s vitally important to spend time expounding on the Word, but when you launch into a story to illustrate that Word, that’s when everyone suddenly straightens in their seats and becomes even more engaged. Both are needed. The same is true with fiction. In my opinion, if classified as Christian, a story must be firmly rooted in good theology if it is going to have a powerful, lasting impact on the reader.

But is my opinion the right one? If not, it wouldn’t be the first time. And lately I have had ample opportunity to consider how strongly I feel about the stand I have chosen to take on this.

Not for the first time, a massively best-selling book and subsequent movie, classified as Christian, has generated much discussion–even, sadly, heated, public debate–among the body of Christ. One review, posted by a pastor, casually mentioned that, yes, some of the teaching might be, strictly (and biblically) speaking, wrong, but that overall the message was so powerful that it wasn’t really enough to worry about.

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That got me thinking. If a book calls itself Christian, how much wrong teaching is acceptable, and how much is too much? Now, I’m not talking about passages of the Bible open to interpretation, or the differences in beliefs between various denominations. I am talking about teaching that is clear in Scripture and that has been affirmed by two thousand years of church doctrine, teaching that in many, if not all, cases, is actually a salvation issue. Wrong teaching, then, for the purposes of this post, is defined as teaching that can be shown in Scripture to be misleading, inaccurate, or just plain not true. Is there room for a small amount of that in a book that calls itself Christian, if the story is good? Can the story ever be good enough or powerful enough to overcome it? Or is a small amount of bad teaching more like what the Bible describes as “a little leaven that leavens the entire loaf?”

In three of the gospels, Jesus tells his followers to “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (Matt. 6:6) Now, the teaching of the religious leaders of the day sounded good. It certainly sounded like it came from Scripture, and in fact had its roots in Scripture. But somewhere along the way, truths had been twisted to suit the ends of the teachers. In the case of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, that end was to control and oppress the people and to maintain their own elevated status in society.

Jesus didn’t have a whole lot of good to say about that. In fact, he was far harder on those who professed to follow God, yet whose teachings had veered away from the clear truths of Scripture, than he was on thieves and drunkards, prostitutes and adulterers. Can we then conclude that Jesus took wrong teaching, even—or especially—by those calling themselves his followers, fairly seriously? Possibly to the point that any good and right teaching they did present was undermined or even negated?

If you are an author of Christian fiction, how important is it to you to weave good, solid biblical theology throughout your writing? As readers, are you willing to overlook some wrong teaching if the prevailing message of the story is strong enough to overshadow it?

2017: The Journey

The writing life is as full of ups and downs as a train ride through the Rocky Mountains. For those of you who put your words to paper and send them out to the world to read, this is not a revelation. As I write this post, there are just four hours left in 2016, a perfect time to reflect on the year that was, and to look ahead to the one about to begin.

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Personally, it was a year of both peaks and valleys with my writing. I had two romantic suspense novels come out, the second and third books of a trilogy. The books, and the series as a whole, received great reviews and feedback, a definite mountain experience. Sales were somewhat disappointing, however, which at times was deflating.

I finished writing and am now in the polishing-and-receiving-critiques phase of a two-book series, which is very exciting. Not entirely sure the best route to take to get them “out there” at the moment, though, and the task of figuring all of that out is somewhat draining, I have to admit.

I made much more of an effort this year to figure out marketing strategies and the best and most effective ways to promote my work. The support I received from fellow authors and readers was very encouraging, but the sure knowledge that so much more remains to be done in this area, and that promoting my own work is just about the last thing I want to do, is mentally and emotionally exhausting.

Some days the pull down into the abyss, the temptation to quit and “get a real job” was strong. But there were good days too, days I was able to rise above disappointment and disillusionment and focus on producing the best work I could in order to honor God and the gift he has given me and, after that, to leave the results up to him.

Riding a train through the mountains is an interesting experience. For the ordinary passenger, there is little or no view of the way ahead. Once a summit is achieved, there is a moment of awe at the breathtaking view spread out to either side. Before one even has time to truly enjoy being at the top, however, the train once again plunges down into the unknown. Only an unwavering trust in the one operating the engine prevents panic and allows one to sit back and enjoy the ride.

The same is true for me as I look ahead to 2017. In 2016, my writing journey shifted from spectacular to worrisome to exciting to exhausting, sometimes from one day to the next, occasionally from hour to hour. The way ahead appears equally daunting and exhilarating. Which leaves me with only one recourse, one resolution, if you will: to trust the one who knows the path I need to take far better than I do, who can see it much more clearly than I can, and who alone can guide me along it every step of the way.

And if, as other resolutions fall to the wayside, I can keep this one, 2017 will be a year of peace, regardless of the peaks and valleys I will inevitably traverse along the way.

Are We Ready?

My latest romantic suspense novel released yesterday. The Morning Star Rises is the third book in The Seven Trilogy, after The End Begins and The Dragon Roars. In a recent interview, I was asked if I thought I had accomplished the purpose I’d had for the series when I set out to write it.

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It was a great question because it made me stop and ask myself what that purpose had actually been, something every author should probably do. Had I wanted to tell a strong, compelling story? Yes. Did I want to be obedient and write the story God had given me to the best of my ability? Always. But what was my unique, specific purpose for this particular trilogy?

Thankfully, I knew the answer. My hope and purpose in writing The Seven Trilogy was to pose the question, “Are We Ready?” to the North American church, the body of Christ, in the twenty-first century.

Times are changing. There is a shift in society that can be felt in the air and seen and heard in the public square in both written and spoken form. Hostility toward Christianity and the Bible is growing. If, as a society, we continue on our current trajectory, the very real possibility of persecution of believers could soon exist, not just in other countries around the world, but right here, in the west.

Are we ready?

In writing The Seven Trilogy, I created a world, forty years in the future, in which such persecution is not a rumour, not a distant, far-off possibility, but reality. With Canada under martial law after a radical group calling itself Christian blows up several mosques across the country, the military is sent in to oppress and keep an eye on believers. Basic rights such as owning a Bible, teaching Christian principles to children, and receiving a fair trial are stripped away. Punishments are meted out swiftly and ruthlessly.

Army Captain Jesse Christenson and believer Meryn O’Reilly find themselves on opposite sides of a ideological chasm that seems impossible to bridge. Can they find a way to be together?

In the midst of the chaos and confusion of this time, when everything they believed in when it was easy to believe is put to the test, the Christians in the story cling to two truths: God is still on his throne, and he has not abandoned them.

A common thread among reviews of the first two novels is that the story made readers stop and think about what they really did believe, how much they were willing to sacrifice for those beliefs, and whether or not they would be able to withstand the threat of severe persecution.

So we’re thinking about whether or not we’re ready. And we’re talking about it, me as much as anyone. Because I didn’t write the books as someone who had it all figured out and wanted to impart my great wisdom on the subject to everyone else. I wrote them as someone deeply concerned, not only about whether the church as a whole is ready for what is to come, but about whether I am ready.

I still don’t know. There is no way to know, really, until what is coming actually arrives. But we can take steps to prepare ourselves.

The believers in these novels wish they had read more, studied more, committed more Scripture to memory before it was taken from them. We still have time to do that.

They regret not doing more to share the gospel with their children and with everyone else in their lives before they had to risk their lives to do so. We can still talk freely about the gospel and expect to receive openness and interest at best, or mocking and dismissal at worst.

After all churches are closed, they agree to continue to meet in secret, risking imprisonment if they are caught. We are still able to meet and worship openly without fear of reprisal.

There is still time, but time does appear to be running out. If The Seven Trilogy inspires believers (including me) to ask ourselves if we are ready, if it generates discussion and gets us thinking about the best way to use the time, resources, and freedoms we have left wisely and effectively, if it drives us to our knees to ask God to help us prepare ourselves and our families for whatever the future brings, then yes, its purpose will have been served.

Why I’m Not Posting to this Blog Today

Okay. Here I go. Computer is booted up and ready to go and I am finally going to write that blog post I have committed to sending off at some point today. Nothing like leaving things to the last minute. But I’ve got it together now. I am ready to put words to paper and come up with something brilliant.

social mediaRight after I check my Facebook page to see if anyone has tried to contact me. Hey, new marketing advice from someone I’ve never heard of. Might be the missing piece I’ve been looking for to send my book sales soaring. Yes, I will subscribe to your newsletter. Sign me up.

Okay, back to work. Feeling a little sleepy though. Maybe I should go outside for a few minutes; a little fresh air might clear my head. I should probably take a quick look at the weather site to see what I should expect if and when I get out there. Looks pretty good. Okay, I’ll log out right…  Wait, that headline is interesting. Just going to click on that to see what the article is about. A bear roaming the streets in a town a thousand miles from here? Fascinating. How did they…? Stop. Focus. I’m supposed to be writing that post.

And I will. Right after I check the sports page to read the write-up on the game last night. Yes, I watched the game (what else did I have to do?) and know exactly what happened. Still…

Oh yeah. I need to register for NaNoWriMo and see who else has signed up that I can be buddies with. Preparing to write that novel is consuming far more of my time and thoughts these days than actually sitting down to write the thing would. Which reminds me, I need to do that too. I have a book contract, a looming deadline, another commitment. I have to write the third and final book in a trilogy. I’m going to get started on that soon. Maybe I’ll go back and read the last few chapters of book two in the series to get me in the zone again.

As soon as I send out a quick tweet so my readers know I’m still around and haven’t fallen off the face of the planet. There. Done. My 140-character contribution to the global conversation. Now back to that post.

Wow, that coffee smells good. I’ll just grab a cup to fortify myself so I can really be productive today. Oops. We’re out of cream. Better text a shopping list to my husband. If I take the time to go to the store, this post will never get written.

Okay, I’m back, fortifying cup of coffee in hand. Wait. What’s that notice in the bottom corner of my screen? My anti-virus coverage is about to expire? That can’t be good. I better renew that. Should I stay with the same company? As far as I know, I haven’t had a virus, so they must be all right. I’ll just e-mail my writer’s group and ask who everyone uses for protection. Really don’t want to lose all this great stuff I’ve written—or thought about writing, anyway—just because I didn’t go with the right company. There, I’ve put the question out there. I’ll go back on in a few minutes to see if anyone has responded.

My phone’s buzzing. My husband, responding to my text. Oh yeah. I forgot he has to work late tonight. I guess I better go to the store then.

No problem. I got quite a bit done this morning. Pretty sure there wasn’t anything else too pressing. If there was, it will still be here waiting for me tomorrow, I’m sure.

For some reason, it always is.

The Heart of the Matter

Nothing is scarier for a writer than to feel that they are out of words. It happens to me, alarmingly often, and from what I hear I’m far from the only one. The condition is akin to a fireman turning his hose onto a blazing fire only to realize there’s no water. Except, of course, that would matter.

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It is the lot of writers, I believe, to constantly question themselves and their ability to produce anything anyone will ever want to read. And that’s what’s at the heart of what I feel on those melancholy occasions when I start to think I can’t produce such a thing. Does it even matter? If I never write another word in my life, would anyone care?

Two different questions, actually. I’m not entirely sure anyone would care, but I am fairly certain that it would matter. The reason for that is, while there is very little that my finite mind can comprehend about a holy, infinite God, I have come to realize something as I have written my novels. He is the giver of the stories. He is the creative source. I don’t think anyone who writes, or paints, or creates or plays music, can deny that there is a power outside of himself providing the inspiration.

And we are created in his image. Which means that we are creators too. Genesis contains no record of Adam and Eve writing or drawing or sculpting, but I’m sure they exhibited their creativity in many ways. Certainly they were the first witnesses to our wildly creative God in the plants and trees around them, and the endless parade of animals and birds and sea creatures passing before them to be named.

Thankfully, creativity continued to flow after the fall, a kind of compensation maybe, a gift from the Creator. So that yes, there would be pain and suffering and sickness and disease in the world now, but there would also be music. And the music would lift us, if only for a while, out of the pain and sorrow and give us the strength to go on.

And there would be ugliness, and destruction, and the gradual disintegration of the planet, but there would be beauty too, in paintings and sculptures and stained glass and architecture. And that beauty would remind us that the God who painted the sunsets and sculpted the mountains and formed the stars is near to us even when he feels far away.

And work would be hard and we would struggle to survive and there would be war and conflict and death, but when we needed to escape the harsh reality of the world around us, we could pick up a book and get lost in a story, or be swept away by words of poetry, and remember that there is another world, and that we are only temporary sojourners in this one, and that, even here, we are never alone.

So it matters. It matters that we accept the gift from the creative God who calls some of us to paint, or to play an instrument, or to write. And if I feel like I don’t have any words of my own, it’s because I don’t. But I can trust the keeper of the words to give them to me when they are needed–to bring joy or offer comfort or provide hope.

And that is all that really matters.

Great Expectations. Or Not.

Every part of the novel-writing journey is painful interesting, but the most interesting of all has to be the last few days leading up to a release. Under no other circumstances in my life do I experience such an intense combination of excitement and abject terror.

I have a new romantic suspense book coming out soon. Today, to be exact. (By way of a shameless plug, it’s The End Begins, Book 1 of The Seven Trilogy, a love story between a Christian woman and the army captain sent to keep the believers in line when martial law is declared after a terrorist attack.)

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The idea that my work is about to go out there for everyone to read—painfully akin to being stripped naked and critiqued by perfect strangers—has, at times, overwhelmed me to the point of barely being able to draw in a breath and seriously considering calling the whole thing off. Minutes later, the idea that my work is about to go out there for everyone to read—thereby bringing the circle that is the writing process to completion and fulfillment—can fill me with inexpressible joy and anticipation.

My thoughts swing wildly from one end of the expectation spectrum to the other as I wait for the big moment to arrive.

This book could sell thousands of copies and make me a best-selling author.
No one will ever hear about, let alone read, this book.
What I’ve written could actually change the world.
The general reaction among readers will be “Meh.”
The legacy of this novel will endure long after I have gone to the grave.
This novel will sit on my parents’ shelf, gathering dust, until it is eventually bagged up and carted off to a thrift store.

The process is crazy-making; there is no doubt about it.

Thankfully, there is an out to the temptation to work myself into a near-catatonic state of over-anxiety and unrealistic expectations. I can remind myself that it doesn’t matter. Not even a little bit. The story came from God. I have no doubt of that. I am deeply aware, as I am writing, that the words are not coming from me but from a source outside of and greater than myself. And since God doesn’t do anything without a purpose, it follows that he has a plan for my novel.

That plan may be for millions of people to read it. For what is contained between the covers of my book to change the world forever. Or for the impact to echo down through generations like a shout hurled into the vast depths of the Grand Canyon. Or it may be for ten people to take a look at it, nine of whom will toss it aside, unmoved, and forget about it immediately.

If that one last person is meant to read it and somehow be changed or impacted by it and that is what happens, then in God’s economy the novel will have been a resounding success.

And as a believer, it must then be a resounding success in my mind as well.

Which takes a tremendous amount of pressure off of the events of this day (did I mention The End Begins is being released, even as you peruse this post?)

Order a copy and read it immediately. Or don’t. But if you think of it, do say a prayer that God will use it for whatever purpose he has in mind.

Which is the greatest expectation for my work that I can have.

I Want You to be Honest. Honest.

When the phone rang, I grabbed it with eager anticipation. A good friend had just finished reading the manuscripts of my two-book romantic suspense series. She claimed to love them both and wanted to discuss them further.

business-19148_1280Nothing thrills me more than discussing my work with someone who admits to loving it, so I looked forward to the conversation.

She didn’t let me down. At first. She gave me thirty seconds to revel (read: let my guard down) as she gushed about how much she loved the story-lines, the characters, the dialogue, the suspense and the romance.

There was a slight pause when she finished. I don’t think she actually said the word “but” out loud, but she might as well have. It crackled along the wire separating us like an electric current, raising the hairs on the back of my neck.

Here it comes.

It actually occurred to me to start breaking up my words like I was traveling in and out of long tunnels and was losing the connection. I could tell her we’d have to continue the conversation sometime in the future. Like after the books had become massive best-sellers and her criticisms had become moot.

Problem was, she’d called me at home.

Short of lighting a match under the smoke detector (and don’t think I didn’t consider it), I was stuck.

For what seemed like hours, she pointed out every little hole in the plot, every weak storyline, and the periodic stretching of credulity.

As a rule, I avoid clichés like the plague. Still, during that conversation I went through a roller-coaster of emotions.

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The initial euphoria wore off alarmingly fast. Trepidation rose to take its place, soon supplanted by an actual, physical pain in my chest (which frightened me even as I grasped hold of the slim hope that I might be having a heart attack and would have to end the call so I could dial 911). Once I managed to get over myself, however, I sloughed off the self-pity and straightened in my chair.

Actually, this was pretty good stuff.

I reached for a pen and paper. Several scribbled pages later (both sides, single-spaced and running up and down in the margins), my friend ran out of suggestions. Or possibly oxygen. Either way, I admit to a sense of relief, coupled with a growing excitement.

She’d made some great points. Even addressed some issues that, deep down, I’d known were problematic, but had really, really hoped no one else would notice. The changes she suggested would definitely make the story stronger, more believable, more suspenseful and maybe even a little more romantic, never a bad thing.

The relief and excitement were soon overtaken by another emotion: gratitude.

Giving her honest opinion of my work hadn’t been easy for my friend. Several times throughout the conversation she had apologized, and gone out of her way to assure me that she really did love the books. Still, she cared enough about the stories—and me—to want them to be even better if possible (and trust me, it’s always possible).

I returned to the top of the first page of notes I’d taken, firmly scratched out Note to self: slash her tires, and settled in to contemplate her recommendations.

When I finished with the edits, I was ecstatic. If I’d ignored my friend’s advice, or set my own house on fire in an effort to avoid it, the books might still have been okay. Now, though, the humiliation humbleness with which I received her constructive criticism and applied it to my manuscripts had borne fruit.

(Brutally) honest feedback on our work is difficult—to take and to give. But if it comes from a genuine desire to help make that work more excellent, and if it is received with a thick skin and an open mind (a powerful combination for a writer to cultivate), it is also a priceless gift.

*This post originally appeared at http://wordalivepress.ca/blogs.