Thursday, February 22, 2018

I like books. I like 'em Christian, and I like 'em otherwise. But, I’ll be the first to admit Christian literature has a reputation for being sub-par, for sacrificing the story for the message. And, after thinking about it, I have to agree. For the most part. But then, if I was asked the same question about mainstream genre or YA, I’d say the same thing. Mainstream trends exist in every corner of art and the ability to rise above these trends is where you find truly good work. Having all that said, today I’m picking on my squad.

So, Christian fiction writers, let’s talk endings. 

The ending is crucial, it has the potential to ruin a story. In the most general sense stories end up concluding in one of three way.
     1) The ending can either be satisfying, leaving all the most important lose ends tied up and all of the characters with what they deserve.
     2) It can be haunting, not answering all the questions presented in the narrative and daring the reader to draw their own conclusion.
     3) It can completely undermine the stakes, voiding the purpose of the narrative.

The last outcome is obviously the one that storytellers want to avoid, and unfortunately it is the one that most Christian storytellers fall into all too easily. Every storyteller cares about the characters in their tales, we're all inclined to lend them a hand. And, as Christians, I think we indulge a little too much in the “Jesus saves the day” sentiment. I mean, Jesus does save the day, just not always in the walk-off-into-the-sunset way we might want Him too. Sometimes, God’s perfect resolution doesn’t look even a little bit like a happy ending to us, and this is something sorely lacking in Christian storytelling.

Whether it's because we care too much or because we think happy endings should always end with the dragon being slain and the prince and princess living happily ever after, we set ourselves on a superficial path of satisfaction. When Christians resolve a story, our focus tends to lie more on justifying the events that occurred in the book rather than allowing the consequences to come. Let me unpack that by talking about the difference between happy endings and good endings, both done in fiction with Christian themes.

Also, should let you know that we're wading into *SPOLIER* territory for Lord of the Rings and The Visitation by Frank Perettii. I’m not going to recap the Lord of the Rings, if you haven’t read it or seen the movies by now then you just don’t care. Go read the wiki and come back when your done.

*the "Protagonist" making a Poor Choice (TM)
From Frodo’s point of view, the Lord of the Rings had a good ending without a traditional “happily ever after”. And that is because at the very end of the story, Frodo fails. He doesn’t willingly cast the ring into the volcano, as he was charged to do. This is where we deviate from a common place ending, in a general plot progression the protag is allowed as many mistakes as they want as long as the conclusion of the story is that they learn from and overcome them. We see Frodo begin a downward spiral as soon as he comes into contact with Gollum. In the ending we see Tolkien stay true to this turn of events when Frodo, partly due to Gollum’s influence, succumbs to his lust for the Ring rather then overcoming it.

Because of this, in the final moments of the conflict he wasn't portrayed as the victorious hero. Were it not for the intervention of his closest friend, Sam, he would have followed the Ring into the volcano and died, just like Gollum. (And I’m a little bit of a terrible person because at that point, I kinda wanted him too.)

In the end, he paid the price. Two years after the Ring is cast into the volcano, when he boards the boat to elsewhere with Gandalf, that's a metaphor for his death. His time with the Ring had sapped away his life. (I mean, it was technically the wound he got from the Nazgul that did him in, but I’m one who likes to indulged in a good spot of poetic justice every now and then.)

Frodo doesn't get a "happy ending". He doesn't go back to his normal life in the shire. He doesn't enjoy years of friendship with Sam, doesn't settle down and start a family. The moment the ring became his burden that life, although something he yearned for, was closed off to him. And he suffers the consequences of having technically failed at the end of his journey. But the ending is satisfying. Peace has returned to middle earth because of Frodo's actions. Frodo's given the grace of at two more years in the shire. And, in the end, he sails off with best buddy Gandalf the beige to his great reward.

Because he dies. That’s what that means, guys. He’s dead. Super dead. Not going to be in Rush Hour 3. I don’t get how people don’t get that.

*boat of death.

The Visitation by Frank Perettii, has a happy ending that's not really a good ending. Since it’s lesser known, here’s the gist. The book takes the point of view of Travis Jordan, the cynical pastor of a small town church who ends up going head to head with a cult, lead by a man claiming to be the second coming of Christ. Sounds interesting, right? Well, it was. Until the end.

*A pastor.

It’s not a bad story, but the ending is…a let down. It just doesn’t deliver. You’re teased the entire book about this “dark past” that the protag has only to realize it’s not all that dark. There are a lot of developed characters that just silently fade into the background after a certain point. There’s a lot of potential for using the events that happened in the book to inspire growth in either individual characters or the town as a whole, but it didn’t. The ending literally is the bad cult guy getting defeated, the damsel in distress getting saved, and everything going back to normal. Only difference is that afterward more people end up at church. Some could argue that that is point. If it is, then that isn’t necessarily a good point to make.

The book had so much potential, so many points intrigued me. But in the end, it was all thrown away because the narrative was focused on making sure the reader knew that Jesus always wins. The ending wasn’t a result of all that had happened in the story, it was a tool for making the story end on a high note. And one thing an ending should never be is a tool.

So that brings me back to my first point. Notice that Lord of the Rings and The Visitation both have endings widely considered to be “happy”, but only one qualifies as “satisfying”. And that is largely due to the problem I mentioned at the beginning of this video. The Visitation focused on justifying the events that occurred in the book. It didn’t want to talk about reality, it wanted to tell a superhero story. Lord of the Rings, however, stayed true to what had transpired in it’s narrative and the ending felt natural because of that.

That’s all I’ve got. ‘Til next time nerds.