The Kingdom of Heaven, The Kingdom of this present darkness [Guest Post]

Thursday, 15 November 2012

As part of Jennifer Freitag and Abigail Hartman's blog party to celebrate two years since the publication of their debut novels, The Shadow Things and The Soldier's Cross, they gave us all an opportunity to ask some questions which they have been answering in a series of question-and-answer posts during November. Abigail answered beautifully my "historical accuracy in fiction" question in her guest post "Historical versus Fictional". And here now, I present to you all the question I tossed at Jenny and warily defied her to answer. Below my rather incoherent question, is Jenny's spot-on brilliant reply. I hope you enjoy--and do not be terrified with the word 'philosophy'; tis not as scary as it sounds! 

[Joy's Question]
The Gospel having been preached far and wide and the Bible being available for many (though there is still a great need!), there are a lot fewer peoples now who have never heard or had anything to do with the Christian Faith. However in more ancient, pagan times, things were rather different, and many neither knew nor heard anything whatsoever to do with Christianity. Sometimes, it can be hard to imagine a pagan society, such as Ancient Britain or Rome, where the Gospel was not yet preached at all and where people knew nothing of the God of the Bible, never saw any true Christians, but rather they followed their own devices, religions and gods. I have found it especially challenging in writing my historical fiction in dealing with a pagan Roman character who eventually comes to faith in Christ, but has no prior knowledge (as a Roman) of the Christian faith before that and how to introduce him to the Christian faith in a biblical and reverent way and finally bring him to a saving faith in Christ (which is such a delicate, beautiful topic, because who can accurately describe and bring about the conversion of a soul except God alone?). In The Shadow Things I truly appreciated the way you handled Indi's introduction to the Christian faith and ultimately his conversion. So I was wondering if you could you share a bit of the process and struggles you went through whilst writing that part of The Shadow Things, and perhaps a bit of personal advice on how to deal with this literary topic in general?

[Miss Jenny's Answer]
This is a huge, pregnant-mare question.  To deal with this I think I’ll start first with a general application, which should help anyone, not just dealing with a “conversion” sequence, but handling interfacing with other views in literature and integrating other views in literature.

Study philosophy.  I know, that’s a bombshell statement: if you mention the word “philosophy” to people it is often like touching them with a cattle-prod.  But I am not talking about a college course in which you are force-fed Hegelian and Freudian views.  It may interest you to know that secular scholars place Paul (our Paul) among the top three philosophers of human history, and the movers and shakers of Christian history, the ones who wrestled with the tenants of our faith that we take for granted today, were highly intelligent, well-educated, philosophical men.  They could think, and they knew the views of the world around them.  I am some years into this business of being a kind of philosopher, and while I confess there are some Twister-game views out there, the whole business is actually very fun and definitely very rewarding.  I sat a few weeks ago at a conference with Mirriam in which a speaker delivered a brief but pretty comprehensive summary of post-modernism—and I could keep up because I’ve studied the nasty, misshapen child of hopelessness which post-modernism is.  Knowing a godly philosophy gives you sound foundation; knowing the philosophy of others gives you a knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of the Lie.  How you approach “giving an account for the hope you have within you (yet with gentleness and reverence)” will depend heavily on the existing philosophy in the other person.  Stephen’s exposition of the Gospel was not the same as the one Paul delivered on the Areopagus because the people who were hearing the two were of completely different worlds and world views.  Keep this in mind!

As far as the history of Christianity goes, the faith spread rapidly, quickly gaining traction and soon recognized as an important sub-tenant of Judaism.  Outsiders “studied” the Christian faith and their reports can be read to this day.  With the obliteration of the Temple in A.D. 70 and the ban against any Jew to get within seeing distance of Jerusalem, Christianity soon broke away from the shadow Judaism and soon became a serious religion in its own right in the Mediterranean world.  An enormous amount of Christian thought is bound up into this time, more than I could sum up in this post.  Suffice it to say, the Church became so strong and central a body in the Empire that, when the Western Empire fell—actually, as it was crashing to its knees and then onto its face—it was the Church that took the place of the empty civil offices.  As in the case of a man like Gregory I (who ended all his letters with the signage “Gregory, a servant of the servants of God”) this was a good thing.  There were some good and godly men who put their shoulders to the caving doorway of civilisation and Christianity was a force to be reckoned with in the world.  Unfortunately that time did not last long—Christianity soon devolved into a kind of neo-Judaism which we can still see in operation today—but her voice and her power remained and, on the contrary, it is a little surprising that the people in the (admittedly isolated) village in The Shadow Things have never heard of “The Church.”  Her shadow was long over the world even in those days.

More practical advice!  Don’t be afraid to read extensively.  The only judgment anyone can cast on you is if you read a very narrow field and don’t bother to expand your horizons.  God and his universe (especially the seemingly infinite universe of the human mind) are vast.  Someone might say, “If there is so much to learn (and understand and apply with wisdom) why bother?  I’ll never learn it all in a lifetime.”  But that’s a dastard’s thinking and unmanly, and definitely not worthy of a creature made in God’s own image.  Fill your library with books from all over time and space.  Since it is mine, and the only one I have access to at the moment, we’ll take a gander at my library.  (Note: before you flip out and paint me too white, rest assured that I have not read all these authors and titles!) 

Obligatory C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien, a bit of George MacDonald, Dante, Harry Blamires (friend of Lewis!), Dorothy Sayers (also a friend of Lewis, and a dem fine woman), Tennyson, William Shakespeare, Rosemary Sutcliff, Madeleine L’Engle, Ben-Hur, Tacitus, Plato, Thomas a Kempis, The Worm Ouroboros, Ravi Zacharias, A.W. Tozer, John Piper (chances are you’ve heard of the last three), Charles Spencer (biographer—coincidentally, Diana Spencer’s brother…), Rudyard Kipling, James Herriot, Bronte, Charlotte Yonge, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ayn Rand (of all people), Sharon Kay Penman, the Venerable Bede (I’ve just loved that name since the first time I heard it way back in middle school), The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, Robert Louis Stevenson, Winston Churchill, G.K. Chesterton (of course!), John Calvin, Gray’s Anatomy, Patricia McKillip’s Riddle-Master trilogy, books on British botany (who would want to study something as tedious as botany…?), Augustine, Anselm, Bunyan, Thomas Costain, Theodore Roosevelt’s biography of Oliver Cromwell (good book, by the way), The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (bears a striking resemblance to the book of Ecclesiastes), On the Incarnation by Athanasius, a whole shelf on the history of Rome (with a bit on Etruria, of which people know little), Cicero, Suetonius, Homer, Virgil (who makes a cross-over appearance in Dante), strange Greek plays, books on medieval hunting, histories and historical novels on Britain…  There’s an overview without getting too detailed.  I don’t want to drown you in details.  As you can see, I’m merely at the start of my career and my library can definitely do with some expansion, but I’m working on a mix: not all the same views, not all the same angles, people from all walks and times of life. 

Have I beat the dead horse of generality enough?  Now to get to your specific question concerning The Shadow Things.  After all I’ve said I feel like I ought to make a big deal about the “conversion” scene in my novel, but the fact of the matter is that that scene wasn’t the point of the story.  Of course it was a pivotal point—that goes without saying.  But the main thrusts of the story, being somewhat twofold, were 1. the image of a Christian joyfully submitting to a harsh life while following his God, and 2. two worlds in conflict: the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of this present darkness.  For those of you who have read the novel you will recognize that the conversion experience for Indi was a gradual thing: the seeds were patiently sown, the Spirit worked quietly, mysteriously, and as he willed without anyone but himself seeing, and the moment in which everything was clinched was more of a stark terror for Indi than anything else: the scales fell off his eyes and he found himself staring into the naked face of the darkness that had so long encumbered him.  He reacted instantaneously, but the work was done before that moment, very innocuously, in no more grand a manner than a mustard seed being planted or a bit of leaven being worked into a lump of dough.  As a general rule, that’s the way it works.  As a general rule, I try to keep it real.

Know what you believe.  Know what others believe.  Be acquainted, in as much as one can, with the typical way God works.  And I think the advice that I can best give you, and best summarizes Indi’s own story, is the verse I referenced earlier: “But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed.  And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always ready to make a defence to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is within you, yet with gentleness and reverence.”

Jennifer Freitag writes fantasy and historical fiction from her home in South Carolina, USA, where she lives with her husband and two cats.  Her inspiration flows from writers like C.S. Lewis and Rosemary Sutcliff, both of whose works have influenced her debut novel, The Shadow Things.  She can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and her blog The Penslayer, and her book can be purchased on her blog and on Amazon, and can be found in Christian bookstores across the Commonwealth.

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