Saturday, February 28, 2015

Who is a Better Story-Teller, C.S. Lewis or J.J.R. Tolkien?


by Lorilyn Roberts


C S Lewis
Probably it depends on who you ask, but it fascinates me that the two were good friends and rose to fame and notoriety while they were still alive. I don't believe we would have had a C.S. Lewis if we had not had a J.R.R. Tolkien, and vice versa. What is the probability that two of the greatest Christian fantasy writers of all time would live within a few miles of each other and sit in a local British pub night after night critiquing each other's stories? (Unless their critiquing made it so; writer critique groups should be a part of every serious writer's life). And critical they were. Stories of their divergent writing philosophies abound; but they helped each other to create masterpieces which have been enjoyed by millions and turned into magnificent Hollywood movie productions.


JRR Tolkien
As a broadcast captioner, I caption a lot of sports, and occasionally I am called upon to caption boxing. Boxing is quite unique in that to have an undisputed winner, one of the boxers must deliver a knockout punch to his opponent. Sometimes the fighter is not able to deliver that fatal blow. When that happens, the judges are called upon to rate or assign values to various aspects of the fight since both are left standing. No one ever seems happy when that happens, particularly the loser, because the criteria for scoring are based on the perceptions of the judges, and we all perceive the world through different lenses depending upon our life experience.

In the same way, my analysis is biased, based on values drawn from a lifetime. I can't deliver a knock-out punch to one or the other and declare unequivocally that there is only one that deserves the award as the best story-teller in each category that I suggest. One observation I can make: I admire both more having read major compilations from each.

As you immerse yourself in superior writing, you become keener in appreciating the value of "goodness" and what is possible; the bane and mundane become boring and trite. You know the average is just ordinary, and having tasted the marvelous, your craving will remain unquenched until you find the next great story. It's like finding a piece of heaven here on earth. Once you "taste and see the goodness of the Lord,"' why would you settle for anything less?

In addition, not only are the writings of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien extraordinary, but the Christian worldview reassures me that good will prevail. Without a Christian worldview, there is no good story.

To help me evaluate and compare their writings, I thought I would apply a set of standards often used when you submit a piece for one of those contests to declare your book the best in a certain category. I thought about theme and motif and setting and dialogue and symbols and all those "critical" concepts that we rely on when judging. I even went to Spark Notes and looked up The Lord of the Rings to see what they had to say. Having won several Academy Awards, I knew there would be a plethora of ideas to get me in my thinking mode. Plus sitting here at Starbucks with my vanilla latte does wonders. I found, though, while I didn't disagree with the details found in Spark Notes, what I analyzed about "story telling" from these books had nothing to do with what they highlighted. So I came back to my blank screen to write my own thoughts and how I feel about each author's masterpieces.



Specifically, the books I read from J.R.R. Tolkien were The Fellowship of the RingThe Two Towers, and The Return of the King. I had not read these books before. I had previously read The Hobbit, so when I began reading, I had that background. I had also seen all three movies, though by the time I watched the third one in the trilogy, I was pretty much lost in Gondor somewhere and missed the battle. I think I fell asleep.


The book I read from the Narnia series was The Horse and His Boy. I had not read this story before, though I am fairly familiar with the most of the other Narnia books and have also seen the movies The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, andThe Dawn Trader. At some level, prior knowledge of works by both authors influence my assessment here.

Light versus Darkness:

I found The Lord of the Ring Series to be very dark; for example, the emphasis on evil stemming from the one ring that needed to be destroyed before it was too late. Sometimes the things we loathe are the things that most fascinate us, however. I started questioning, what in my life is the ring? What evil taunts me, consumes me, distracts me, overwhelms me? And the more power I give it over me, the more of myself I lose to it. So while the idea of the ring is captivating and thought-provoking, it is also dark and foreboding.

I found the Narnia Series to be more anticipatory of goodness despite the darkness. InThe Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the snow is melting. Aslon is back, and the direct and indirect references, as well as Aslon's personal appearances in The Horse and His Boy, were uplifting and encouraging.

Aslon is the recurring motif in the Narnia books while the ring serves that purpose in the Lord of the Rings. Because I preferred the goodness of Aslon over the evil influence of the ring, C.S. Lewis wins out on this comparison.

Story-telling -- which content did I enjoy more?

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in a very classical style. I cannot imagine the kind of talent it requires to spend 50 pages getting from point A to point B without immense repetition, which did not happen. His imagery was breathtaking as I felt transported to the world of hobbits, elves, and dwarves in Middle Earth, where epic battles had been fought for thousands of years around the tiny world of the shire which seemed unaffected by it all.

I was disappointed in the end that the shire had not escaped the evil. I like to think that there are some things that evil cannot penetrate, and for me the shire represented that paradise, that special place that will always be there despite whatever else bad in the world happens. It reminds me of a comment that Jesus made in Matthew 8:20, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head," referencing the fact that His home was in heaven and not on Earth.

In the midst of the journey, though, I got impatient. I wanted to get to the fires of Mordor and destroy the ring that I was helping Frodo to carry. I became frustrated, reading through pages and pages about prominent kings and characters from the past that added little to the story. But I trudged through it because I wanted to get rid of that darn ring. And, of course, the ring was destroyed quite a ways before the actual end of the story. I wasn't sure I cared enough about the characters after the destruction of the ring to keep reading. I figured everything would end happily ever after anyways. I was relieved when I did finally get to the last page.

In contrast with C.S. Lewis' The Horse and His Boy, and all of the Narnia books, I didn't feel bogged down in a never-ending journey that was almost doomed to end in failure. In fact, there was sadness when I finished The Horse and His Boy. As has been true with all of the Narnia books, I wanted more. I wanted to see Aslon again. I wanted to linger in Narnia. I didn't want the story to end. I have yet to read The Final Battle, and I tarry to do so because once I have read it, there won't be any more Narnia books to enjoy.

So on content, C.S. Lewis won out again.

Story-telling -- which style did I enjoy more?

C.S. Lewis incorporates one ingredient into his writing which J.R.R. Tolkien lacks: Humor. I relished those lighthearted, silly thoughts and playful moments; i.e., the horse who didn't want to give up his habit of scratching his back by lying on the ground with his legs up in the air.

J.R.R. Tolkien's style represents a battle of epic proportions with serious consequences. If the main characters fail, Middle Earth is doomed.
In The Horse and His Boy, while there is a battle between good and evil, with Aslon's help, you know that goodness will prevail. The story ebbs and flows with suspense, unpredictability, and action. The light nature of C.S. Lewis' storytelling is refreshing. While probably artistically inferior to J.R.R. Tolkien, I preferred it. I just wanted a good story, not a literary masterpiece. Perhaps less sometimes is more.

The Take Away -- who wins out?

While I will probably read the Narnia books  again (some I have already read twice), I will probably never re-read any of the Lord of the Rings books. However, that being said, for me, I believe the takeaway from J.R.R. Tolkien is greater. The overarching feel of the story, its grandeur, the meaning of the ring and how it applies to my life, the insignificant hobbits playing such an important role in destroying the ring (although in the end Frodo failed), the mental images of a decaying world (reminding me of ours), the wise, slow-talking Ents (I need to slow down), Stridor who was a woman's man (will I ever meet someone like that), and Gandalf, the fearless wizard, and many others, these images will grow over time and become a part of me. Some parts of the story were understated. I will see or experience something that will trigger a reflection back to those scenes that have etched themselves in my memory forever.



Some of my favorite movies and books I have read or watched only once. Perhaps they stir within me feelings that I haven't fully explored, thoughts that I don't have answers to, or motifs that still await redemption and therefore are painful to relive, much like reading about Christ's crucifixion in the Bible. It hurts too much. I can think of many such examples; e.g., the movie A Beautiful Mind and the book The Exodus.

So to sum up the results, who is the better story-teller, C.S. Lewis topped J.R.R. Tolkien in light versus darkness motif, story-telling content and style, but J.R.R. Tolkien came in first with takeaway-- long-term impressions that will grow with the passage of time and increase in measure and fullness of meaning. 

To learn more about Lorilyn Roberts, you can visit her website at http://LorilynRoberts.com and her blog at http://LorilynRoberts.blogspot.com.

I would love for readers to comment on who their favorite is between the two. It takes a wee bit of introspection, but we will do an informal survey and tally up the responses in a couple of weeks and see who wins.


Friday, February 27, 2015

Our Stories Matter: Proceed with Caution

Those of us who regularly advocate for women' issues have been waiting, not with anticipation. We knew it was coming. 

A week after 50 Shades of Grey hit screens, someone in Chicago used it as his excuse to tie up and rape a young woman. Not surprisingly, opinion writers and Facebook ranters pounced on the news. Also not surprisingly, they continued to have radically differeent opinions.

People are responsible for their own actions. No one can blame a movie or a book for being dumb.

If violent sexual behavior sells, we should not be surprised when men follow through.

I have my opinions. I've voiced them—numerous times. (Here, herehere, and here, for instance.) But the controversy made me think about my own writing. As a writer myself, it matters to me whether what I say effects what someone else does. As a Christian, I have to take the question a step farther and ask, “What is my responsibility for what I write, teach, and communicate?” How far ahead do I have to think about words I put on paper or speak from a pulpit to see the possible ramifications? How much should I gauge what I say accordingly?

Is “the movie made me do it” ever a tenable defense? What does that mean for those of us who put words in public? What kind of power do we have to change people?

More than we know.

Studies in neuroscience prove that what we read not only informs and entertain us, it changes us.

“A team of researchers from Emory University reported that when subjects in their laboratory read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active. Metaphors like 'The singer had a velvet voice' and 'He had leathery hands' roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like 'The singer had a pleasing voice' and 'He had strong hands,' did not. The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life.” (NYT, Annie Paul)

So while a lot of people are arguing that a story is just a story, and fiction is not intended to be taken seriously, biology disagrees. Though we have read or seen something not real, our minds and bodies have experienced something very real.

This has no lasting effect if we read about the smells of grandma's kitchen and then want to go eat snickerdoodles. But there are more serious sensory descriptions going on in literature and cinema than cookies. We need to carefully consider what we're creating.

“Dear brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly. Indeed, we all make many mistakes." (James 3.1-2)

I know a great deal about that “making many mistakes” part. Nevertheless, those who choose to teach the word of God, which includes Christian communicators of all kinds, need to heed James carefully. We will be held to a higher standard. Why? Because words are powerful, and they shape peoples' hearts. And, we are not employing simple words as Christians. We are teaching God's words. That is a whole different level of words. Everyday words are dynamite, and we are working with atomic bombs by comparison. We need to watch what buttons we choose to push.

This applies to every area of our communications. I am assuming Christian communicators are not out there planning to emulate E. L. James. But we do permeate our writing with our worldview. If we write nonfiction, we propagate opinions and choose our facts based on our own biases. Are those biases rooted in Scripture and eternal truth? Or are they the product of our own culture and preferences?

As fiction writers, we create worlds and scenarios. Are those worlds challenging Christian to think about issues close to God's heart, or are they forwarding our own agendas? It matters, if stories change hearts and actions. Fiction, in fact, appears to have more of an impact on our thought patterns, and behaviors, than nonfiction.

Research consistently shows that fiction does mold us. Studies show that when we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to make us rubbery and easy to shape.”
 (Jonathan Gottschall, Boston Globe, April 29, 2012.)

All communicators want to convey a message. If we didn't, we would get a job at Target and take up knitting. Stories teach. They always have. Jesus knew it when he used parables to convey his point. He chose his words carefully, because he, the living Word, understood their power.

Books have a long history of impact. Charles Dickens led the way toward child labor reform. Upton Sinclair forced food industry change. (Though that was not his intention.) A number of dystopian works (1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451) caused people to evaluate the future and what they did or did not want in it. Uncle Tom's Cabin gave a face to slavery and helped usher Lincoln into the presidency. That's a lot of power for simple stories.

“And you yourself must be an example to them by doing good works of every kind. Let everything you do reflect the integrity and seriousness of your teaching. Teach the truth so that your teaching can’t be criticized.”
 (Titus 2.7-8)

Am I suggesting Christian writing that's all sunshine and unicorns? Hardly. None of the above examples are works of perfect heroes and happy endings. Considering the Psalms, Lamentations, and the most graphic book of Scripture, Judges, no one can argue that the Bible shies away from tough plot lines. In fact, I would argue that Christians need to embrace the tough things in their writing a lot more often than we do.

But we need to do it with care. A teacher is responsible for his or her teaching. There is no “it was just a story” defense. Nothing is just a story. No communication enters a black hole. That applies whether we're writing a novel or an op ed about issues of the day. Our words have a heavy weight. Choose them with love, grace, and honesty. Choose them with care. 



Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Thing I Wouldn’t Do for God

What's your fill-in-the-blank deal breaker?


A small group I’m in at church is focusing on God’s will. What is it, how we can know it, how we can do it, etc. Last week’s discussion addressed the question: What if we don’t like God’s will? Each of us attempted to fill in this blank: God, I will do anything but __________.

We watched the music video, “Please Don’t Send Me to Africa.”  Of course, we laughed, but it’s such a cliché among Western Christians. I wondered why, until someone pointed out missionaries to Africa used to take their own coffins with them.

So what did my fellow explorers of God’s will disclose as their fill-in-the-blank deal breakers? Public speaking. Taking family into danger. Giving up comfort, income, status. Not that these were actually deal breakers. They were just hard to consider. Why? Because we’re afraid. Why do we live in fear? Because our focus is not on God’s will. We don’t live as if nothing matters more than the Gospel that redeemed us. This life and its daily decisions mean little compared to our eternal presence with God. Eternity has already begun for us, and yet we cling to the hope that it is God’s will for us is to sail through this life safe, healthy, and comfortable.

It’s the surrender to God’s will no matter the outcome that frees us. Our focus shifts from the daily struggle to figure out what God wants from us to discovering His absolute will found in Scripture. His will is that we repent and believe in the power of Christ to save us. Live a life set apart for His glory. Forgive. Give thanks. Preach the Gospel to all nations. Love God. Love others. Yes, there is more to it. The Bible is filled with examples and exhortation regarding God’s will. Yes, God cares what happens to us in our lives. But if we regard this present life as being eternally God’s, we can be set free from the fear and confusion.


For all of my talk of looking at the bigger plan, I find the daily struggle—my little refusals to God—are what keep me from following His will. I’m too busy, or too tired, or unprepared, or I just don’t want to. I’m not referring to letting God help me pick which house to live in, or whether to buy the hatchback or the sedan. I mean the everyday decision I make to disregard matters of His Kingdom. The help I don’t offer. The words I don’t speak, or the ones I should keep inside but I let them out anyway. The attention I should pay to the person God puts in my face. The attention I should pay to God.

If I don’t follow God’s will, does His plan just get left undone? No. Will He get all frustrated with me? He’s not like that. Will He punish me? He already took my punishment, but He might discipline me. Will I miss out on something? On a blessing? Possibly. Will my refusal alter life as we know it? I don’t know. Only God knows.

Years ago, a man I didn’t especially like became part of my church family. I sensed something was wrong with the picture he presented of his life. Months later, I fractured my skull, and well, I forgot a lot of things about a lot of people. Including the fact that I didn’t like this guy. He visited me, and during my recovery I grew to like him. He was smart and he knew the Bible. We had some deep conversations. We became friends—he and his wife and me and my husband.

A few months later, the man’s wife had him arrested. He’d been beating her, and when he went after their little boy, she called the cops. He bonded out and his wife filed for divorce. Weeks went by with no word from the man. Then one day I had a strong sense that I should call him. Just call and tell him I was thinking about him. Praying for him. Tell him I didn’t hate him.

But he was a wife beater. A criminal. I wanted nothing more to do with him. And I told God no.

A week after that, my friend parked his car on the side of the road, doused himself with gasoline, and lit a match. 

Was it my fault?  His destiny was not my responsibility. Did I feel guilty? Not for long. God knew I wouldn’t call him. God could have saved the man’s life in any number of ways, but He didn’t. Still, I’ll always wonder what might have been.

So maybe the thing I’d put in my blank isn’t big. Maybe it’s the next little thing I don’t want to do. And the next. And the next. But I hope not. Filling in the blank is not God’s will. I want to leave it blank. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Are You Searching for Good or Evil?



“If you search for good, you will find favor; but if you search for evil, it will find you!”—Proverbs 11:27 (NLT).

We can read the Bible cover-to-cover many times but never recall every scripture. However, the Holy Spirit brings the perfect one to mind in His timing. That’s what happened to me when I recently attended LifeChurch.TV with a friend on a Saturday evening.

The first scripture Senior Pastor Craig Groeschel cited in his sermon was Proverbs 11:27: “If you search for good, you will find favor; but if you search for evil, it will find you!”

Using a real-life example, Pastor Groeschel used birds to demonstrate his message. A buzzard, he said, searches for dead things, like road kill, to feast on. However, the tiny hummingbird flits around looking for sweet things—the sweet nectar of a flower or that provided by a human in a feeder. “Both,” he said, “find what they’re looking for.”

As I thought about the scripture and the pastor’s example, I realized how true it is. If we don’t look for the good, then we will certainly see the evil in everything. I’m not saying we should look at the world through rose-colored glasses but neither should we be a “Negative Nancy” or a “Debbie Downer.” (Note: If your name is Nancy or Debbie, please do not be offended.)

How often we take offense, choosing not to seek the good in another person or a situation we cannot change. Romans 12:2 tells us “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”

Clinging to what is good should be the choice each Christian makes. 


Through the renewal of our mind, which can only happen through a transformational relationship with Jesus Christ, we can begin to see the good in the world. Some believe it’s difficult to see the good when we are blasted constantly with negative news, courtesy of the media. Maybe that’s because bad news travels faster than the good. There is a common saying in the journalism business which is, “If it bleeds it reads.”

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

LAVISHLY LOVED


I am a princess
 

I am special to God, and you can be too! I don’t mean to be boastful—just stating a fact.  Please allow me to explain. I have three proofs that God loves me!  First, He sent His only Son, Jesus Christ, to die in my place, before I ever understood that, like everyone else, I was a sinner, alienated from Him (See Romans 3:23). Second, He sent someone my way to make sure I heard and understood the gospel (See Romans 10:14). Third, He confirmed His love and forgiveness by calling me His child. The Scripture clearly puts it this way, “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God” (1 John 3:1 NIV84)!

I cannot wrap my mind around the fact that I am a child of God, but yes, I am! I don’t have to understand it. I just need to accept it by faith, because God said so. It is amazing that I am a child of God, and that of course makes me a princess. Would you like to be God’s prince or princess? C’mon!

Now that I am His child, I need to look like Him. After all, children usually do resemble their parents in some way—in looks, actions, likes and dislikes, or mannerisms. Because I cannot become like God on my own, He has put His Holy Spirit in my heart to bear witness to the fact that I am His and to guide and prompt me to walk in His way. In addition, He has given me the Holy Scriptures (Bible), which is His instruction for me, and many siblings in Christ to encourage and build me up.

What a great honor this is. God is not ashamed to call me His child. He does not remember any of my sins, because, He says, He has removed them as far as the east is from the west (See Psalm 103:12). He sees me as holy, because my transgressions are forgiven, and my sins are covered (See Romans 4:7).  With this honor come all kinds of perks:

I do not wait in line to get God’s attention.

I do not take a number and wait.

God never puts me on hold.

God never gets tired of my comings and goings.

I can stay in God’s presence as long as I need to.

I can talk as long as I need to.

God does not rush me through conversations.

I can trust God completely, because His plans for me are for my welfare.

 

Dear reader, do you understand what I am saying? Jesus has already paid the penalty for your sins. He has placed me in your path to explain to you how much he loves you, and that is what I have been trying to do by telling you about my experience. Admit to Him today that you are a sinner, and gladly accept His forgiveness. That will make you His child, with no questions asked, and no reminders about your past. The Bible says, “Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him” (Romans 4:8 NIV84).  He will indwell you through His Spirit, and set you on the path to a new life of faith in Christ. He will walk with you as He does with me, and you can enjoy all the perks I mentioned before. 

Please don’t postpone making this decision. You might not have as much time as you think. Settle this issue today, because time is running out!

 

 

 

 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Plight of the Christian Author in 2015

 

Like any product, marketing is the key to successful book sales

I read a lot of Christian writers, both fiction and non-fiction. Add to this, that I am a Christian writer, both in that I am a Christian who has a number of published books under my belt, and that two of them were specifically written for the Christian market. To make my authority on the subject of this post even more clear, I am a marketing consultant with over 45 years of marketing experience. Finally, most of my books have been quite successful, and those books have been published through everything from Warner Books to me.

As a marketer, I have ushered thousands of new products to market. I have seen fantastic ideas go nowhere, and I have seen average products make millions. If I could summarize the primary reason for the failure of the great products, it would be lack of marketing expertise or lack of funding to execute a good marketing plan. In other words, you can offer gold at $5 an ounce, but if nobody knows about it, there's no chance it will sell.

Up until 10 or so years ago, the only realistic way an author was going to get his book in front of large audiences was through the traditional book store model. That meant selling the book to a publisher who could then get the book onto the shelves. Even then, new authors had almost no chance of moving the product off the shelves unless there was a marketing campaign behind the book. Almost no publishers spent money then or now on new authors. It was up to the author to use publicity, advertising, reviews, radio, book signings, and speaking engagements to get books sold.

That has not changed at all!! No matter if you are self published or published by Random House, an author has to provide marketing backup to have an significant chance of success.

What has changed are the avenues open for marketing. The internet has created a form of democracy for authors. A new or relatively new author can theoretically find an audience through online efforts just as easily as the established author. What this potential has created is authors who wrongly believe that an internet only approach will result in great results for their books. There has even sprung up any number of companies that will be happy to help fledgling authors to pursue this unlikely route to success. And the money spent on these approaches is rarely recovered in book sale profits.

I self published my latest book, "God Called - He Needs Your Decision!" about one year ago. The total cost to make the book ready for sale and to buy some soft cover copies was close to $5000. That included a top-of-the line editor doing a full professional editing job.

I have now sold around 500 copies of the book, which is the second least of any book I've ever penned. I have depended on the internet, including this blog, to create sales. I have used huge amounts of Twitter and done some YouTube videos. But I have NOT done any speaking or advertising. My reviews are only those on Amazon. I have NOT worked to get any newspaper or magazine reviews. I have NOT done any radio or even tried to get radio shows.

Bottom line - there are many, many, many fine Christian books out there. To be sure, there are many so-so one's, as well. Any author today who wishes to sell their books must still get the word out through the very same channels, publicity, advertising, reviews, radio, book signings, and speaking engagements, as before. PLUS the internet.

P.S. Of course, you can sell your book to a publisher, but then you will still need to do all of the very same things to move the book, and you will make far less for each book sold. The advantage is that the publisher pays the upfront costs. The advantage is even greater if you get a substantial advance.