Nominal Christians in Fiction and Real Life

Particularly for authors who are Christians of one sort or another, or authors who write for the Christian fiction markets, it is important to distinguish between Christians and nominal Christians.

In the United States, a person can follow any religion he likes, or no religion. And he can call himself a Christian whether or not that is particularly true. So there are a lot of people walking around with the ‘Christian’ tag on them who do not meet the normative definition of ‘Christian.’

Some Christians say that real Christians are ones that have had a ‘born again’ experience that they remember, or that have gone forward at a ‘altar call’ in Evangelical churches that have that practice. Other Christians say that being an active Christian can start at the sacrament of baptism, even an infant baptism, and can continue as a child is raised in a Christian home where prayer and church attendance are the norm.

A nominal Christian is a Christian ‘in name only.’ Why does he take the name of Christian? For some people, claiming Christianity as a religion is just another way of saying ‘my family is not Jewish.’ If they have parents, grandparents or great-grandparents who were raised as Christians, they feel they are Christian enough— they are just not ‘fanatics’ about it.

Other people honestly think that if they believe in God and sometimes ask this God for stuff, like help in an emergency or a winning lottery ticket, that makes them Christian, unless their family was Jewish or they have taken up Buddhist meditation.

It does not help that in addition to the faithful Christians— Protestant and Catholic— who believe something that a Christian from 200 years ago would recognize as Christian, there are also very progressive Christians who make headlines. For example, some progressive Christians have blessed abortion centers and said that committing abortions is what Jesus would do. That reinforces a perception that in Christianity, anything goes and you can believe any old thing and it can be part of Christianity.

Nominal Christianity is not the same thing as progressive Christianity. Progressive Christians, as far off from the New Testament as their faith can be, are living a faith that they believe is the modern version of Christianity. Nominal Christians aren’t actively practicing any faith at all. They don’t usually know enough about Christianity to know there is something missing in their faith life.

In fiction, nominal Christians play a role in Christian fiction often by being an obstacle or a challenge to active Christians. In the ‘Left Behind’ series, the main characters included nominal Christians who became real Christians after the shock of the ‘rapture’ event.

In secular fiction, nominal Christians are often seen as sensible and non-fanatic Christians by those writers who know little. Though I’ve never read a book in which a man who doesn’t own a Koran, has never fasted for Ramadan, and who has never been to a mosque or said even one of the five daily Muslim prayers is named as a ‘non-fanatic Muslim.’ Muslims are expected to have some hints of their faith in their lives, both in fiction and in real life. Christians should have that as well. If they don’t, but still say they are Christians, we may suspect that perhaps they are nominal Christians.

Authors who know better should never present nominal Christians as ‘better’ Christians, any more than the no-mosque, no-prayer guy is a ‘better’ Muslim. Religions, both in the real world and our fictional worlds, have content. Nominal Christians, or nominal Muslims, or nominal Buddhists lack that content and so should not be representative of those faiths.

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Is That Dragon Really Necessary?

One problem writers sometimes have is when they toss in a story element— such as a dragon in fantasy fiction— that isn’t really integrated with the rest of the story. It’s just something the writer happens to like in fiction, so he throws it in.

But story elements— whether dragons or robots or foreign spies— can’t just stand around looking genre-specific. They must be a part of the story. A dragon may be part of a hero’s quest— he might have to slay the dragon, or trick the dragon, or get the dragon to fall in love with his pet donkey (Shrek reference.)

Sometimes dragons are more than an obstacle for a hero. Think of the Dragon Jousters series by Mercedes Lackey, or the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik, or the Pern series by Anne McCaffrey and son— in all of these, dragons are central to the story. Without dragons, you couldn’t have these stories. Or, at least, they would be utterly different stories.

By now I’m sure I have some writers saying ‘that blogger wants me to take the dragon out and I won’t! I won’t.’ Well, you don’t have to. You just have to know how the dragon fits in to your story and your story’s world.

In some fantasy novels, facing a dragon can be part of a quest. The reader may go through chapters of the quest without knowing for sure there is a dragon in the book— authors don’t have to mention ‘here be dragons’ when they start a fantasy novel in a fantasy world. Now, if the dragon is in contemporary Green Bay, Wisconsin, I’d want to know why. Or if the dragon is a Packers fan. Or something.

Dragons can be central to some stories, as in the three series I mentioned above. Think of these stories as an endless ‘what if’ game. If they had dragons in the Napoleonic wars, how would the dragons be raised? How would they be trained? How would a nation have enough meat to feed hungry war dragons? And so on. Answering all the dragon-questions is almost like a game between author and reader.

Fictional dragons can come in many sorts. The dragons in the Dragon Jouster series are animals, and so cannot speak. Dragons in the Temeraire and Pern series do speak— the Pern dragons telepathically, the Temeraire dragons verbally. The dragons can have different abilities, be different colors, and be at different intelligence levels.

Christian fiction can have a problem with dragons. I have read that some Christians— both Evangelical and Catholic— look on a dragon as a symbol of evil as in the Biblical book of Revelation. But if that is a restriction on a Christian’s ability to write non-evil dragons, then what about writing about nice goats (as in Heidi?) The Bible does speak of the sin goat and separating the sheep from the goats. As a person who has kept actual sheep and actual goats, yeah, sometimes the goats are more ‘sinful,’ or harder to handle. But sheep can be that way, too. And I’ve never heard yet that the Serpent in the Garden of Eden means that a Christian author can’t write a character whose son has a pet snake. So, even though I am a Christian I feel perfectly free to include nice dragons, goats or snakes in a story.

I love dragons. I love stories with dragons. But if the dragon in your fiction doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the story, you may have to make a choice— either lose the dragon, or change the story so the dragon bit of it fits in better with the rest. You are the author— it’s up to you to decide how that will happen.  Happy dragoning!

#FixThatBlog – Blog Housekeeping

The longer you have— and post in— a blog, the more your blog will need housekeeping. Any post currently on your blog can win you a new reader who finds you through a search engine. You want to make a good first impression!

One housekeeping chore is when you revise your concept of the niche or theme of your blog. You may find a lot of your own posts no longer fit. Should you go on a post-deleting binge? Not really. Some of my ‘off-topic’ blog posts are also my evergreen posts— every day they get a hit or two. Do those hits translate into readers? Probably only rarely, but still, it’s nice to have a blog that receives regular visitors whether they stay or become fans or not.

One type of post you CAN easily delete is the years-ago no-longer-valid post. You may have made an excited blog post or two five years ago about a traditional publisher that showed interest— only to find that the traditional publisher turned out to be a vanity press who was lying to you and would accept any work as long as the author paid the money.

Or you ranted against a politician you then hated but support now. Or you shared chapters from a work-in-progress that you never finished and now no longer want to finish. Or you wrote posts to justify Amazon affiliate links but Amazon since kicked you out of the program for not making enough sales in the first three months (that happened to me.)

Any old post that seems no-longer-valid and that has no comments, doesn’t regularly draw in new readers or visitors, and isn’t really about your niche anyway might be fodder for deletion. You don’t HAVE to delete old posts, but if you really feel some of them are dragging your blog down, delete them. Or revise!

Revising posts you have already posted may seem like a waste of time, but some of them are well worth revising. An evergreen post (that gets regular visits) that has spelling errors or is out of date in some way can be brought up to date. A rewrite of a post that is drawing new visitors through search engines might improve it to the point that the next few visitors stay longer and read the whole thing, or even go on to read other articles on your blog.

Revising old posts that don’t regularly draw new visitors may be a waste of time unless they contain old information that must be corrected, or unless the headline is misspelled or ungrammatical. Sometimes you can just leave it up to add to your blog’s total post number. A blog with 500 posts impresses readers far more than a blog with 12 posts.

Another housekeeping task lies in updating your categories and tags, or your labels. In WordPress blogs you can use categories and tags to sort your blog posts. Categories can be in a hierarchy— that is, under ‘blogging’ I can have the categories ‘blog hops’ and ‘blog improvement.’ You can give more than one category to a post. Also, on WordPress you can use tags. I use this when I mention a writer, such as Declan Finn, or a podcaster, such as Jimmy Moore. I can make a tag of their names and then readers can find other posts mentioning the same person, and it doesn’t clutter up the categories. In Blogger, however, you have to use labels for both functions.

I once made the mistake of eliminating a bunch of categories to make my category system more logical. The result was that a lot of posts became ‘Uncategorized’ and as a result that category became the top category. So from time to time I get ambitious and start going through old ‘Uncategorized’ posts, giving them real categories. My goal is to get rid of that ‘Uncategorized’ category in time.

Another blog housekeeping task is to regularly check your blog’s PAGES. Pages are those most important, just-under-the-blog-name tabs that are often called ‘About Me’ or ‘Contact Me’ or that list your books, book signings, and other important stuff. If you delete your Twitter account but it is still on your contact page, that is a BAD thing. It can be a good habit to look over your pages once a month just to catch any things that need updating. More, if you have a page for book signings and public appearances that needs to be kept up to date.

Keto Life: Evidence that Calories don’t Count

We all have to unlearn all the ‘common sense’ slogans about healthy diet and weight loss parroted by advocates of the low-cal/low-fat ‘hunger games.’ ‘A calorie is a calorie is a calorie,’ goes one slogan. But slogans are not science.

One bit of real science everyone on the keto lifestyle ought to know is the 1957 study by Kekwick and Pawan. These two respected British doctors/researchers experimented with a 1000 calorie diet. The dieters were divided in groups. One group got 90% of their calories from carbohydrates, another got 90% from protein, and another got 90% from fat.

If ‘a calorie is a calorie is a calorie’ is a slogan with any validity, all of those diets should have had pretty much the same results. But the 90% carb dieters lost very little weight, the 90% protein dieters lost more, and the 90% fat dieters lost the most. The macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein, fat) in the food made more difference than the sheer calorie count!

Maybe that makes you wonder what a calorie is, anyway. It is the measure of the energy in food, if you burned it in a lab. But we don’t burn our food in a lab. We metabolize it in our bodies, and our bodies treat the different macronutrients in different ways.

That’s why on keto we can’t substitute a 100 calorie candy bar for 100 calories worth of our low-carb vegetables, or 100 calories worth of butter. Our body handles different foods in different ways. In my own case, 100 calories of a candy bar would likely trigger a carbohydrate binge which would send my blood sugar and my weight right up. 100 calories worth of low-carb veggies would not, and 100 calories of butter, perhaps in a bulletproof coffee, would prevent my carb cravings and make me forget to eat the next meal. (Yes, even a chow-hound like me can say ‘no’ to food on keto!)

Since keto/lowcarb is not a temporary fad diet but a lifelong way of eating, we need to know about the science behind the approach. Memorize those names— Kekwick and Pawan— and the year— 1957. The study in question was published in the journal Metabolism Clinical and Experimental, and the study was called “Metabolic Study in Human Obesity with Isocaloric Diets High in Fat, Protein or Carbohydrate,” by authors A. Kekwick and G. L. Pawan.  Sadly, I could not find this study on the Internet.

If I had a medical degree and the ability to get things published, I would love to publish a short book with medical journal articles supporting the keto/low-carb lifestyle, and one of the first articles I would love to reprint in the book would be the Kekwick and Pawan study. Such a book would be a great little thing for us Ketonians to pass on to our skeptical doctors and non-doctor ‘health-care providers’ who would rather we use pills and, if necessary, low-cal/low-fat hunger diets in a vain attempt to improve our health.

I tend to post ketogenic lifestyle topics on Thursdays. I hope some of my readers find these posts useful. 

#FixThatBlog – Blogging and your WIP

This is a post in the #FixThatBlog series about fixing neglected author blogs, and also the July post in the Insecure Writers’ Support Group blog hop. See, multitasking!

A writer must write. Write on his works-in-progress, and finish first draft and other drafts. But he must also write blog posts so he can build a platform, right? But how do you find the time to do both?

You make the time. Platform-building, in the form of writing your blog posts, and writing your writing-works are both being-a-writer tasks. As are finding agents and traditional publishers, or finding book cover artists and editors-for-hire, depending on whether you are seeking indie writer or traditionally-published writer status.

But it’s tricky. I have a lot of days when I either write blog posts or do work on my WIP. I’ve been trying to schedule a second writing session in my evenings when I usually watch boring crap on television. But due to my health problems and to cheats on my ketogenic ‘lifestyle’ I am too exhausted in the evenings lately to actually do it. I must think of some other solution.

We writers are multi-taskers. We write on our WIPs, but we also go to our day jobs or get our laundry done or cook our meals. And make our bulletproof coffees. There have been cases of writers who took a year’s sabbatical to finally have time for their writing work— and they get even less done than when they were busy with a day job.

I’m not a perfect person on being organized or on Getting-Things-Done. I have Asperger Syndrome (autism spectrum disorder), which can make a person seem like they have attention deficit disorder as far as being organized and getting things done is concerned. And I’m not a spring chicken any more, and so have a set of health problems that cause a lot of fatigue, especially when I don’t watch my diet. So I have to adapt whatever advice I get from books to what works for me.

Days of the week are one ‘organizational’ tool I have. My garbage pickup is on Wednesday, so an important task on Tuesday is getting the garbage gathered and the garbage cart taken to the curb. Since this blog, since my recent small stroke in February, is also replacing a ketogenic diet blog I don’t have time for, I use Thursday as ‘keto day’ on this blog and make keto posts then. The first Wednesday in the month is Insecure Writers Support Group day. Saturday I can write about my cats or critters, and Sunday I can write things related to Christianity.  This gives me a bit of a planning scheme that I can remember.

To learn more about writing and time management, read How to Manage the Time of Your Life by James Scott Bell. (JSB writes a lot of how-to-write books that are very useful, and also writes mystery novels in the Evangelical Christian fiction market.)

To learn more about Getting-Things-Done, pick up  Getting Things Done by David Allen. This book has been found so useful by so many people that it made the book into an actual bestseller— as in ‘New York Times bestseller.’

IWSG folks on Blogger: if you have that ‘prove you are not a robot’ thing enabled, I cannot comment on your blog post. Sorry. It just doesn’t work on my computer and I’m sick of writing comments that don’t get posted so I have stopped trying.

Have you had any conflicts between getting your WIP done and writing your author-blog posts? Or getting your other tasks done? What do you do about the conflict? Have you found a solution that works for you?

Avoiding Deus et Machina Endings

If you regularly read ‘how to write’ books you may have read warnings against having a Deus et machina ending. What is that? It is usually explained as a tradition in ancient Greek theater where the playwright could land the character in a load of trouble the playwright couldn’t fix, and then just use the ‘God from the machine,’ a stage device that made it look like a god-character had taken the troubled character up to heaven and solved all his problems.

Well. I’m skeptical. The little ancient Greek drama I have read is on mythological and legendary stories— stories the audience knew. They would not welcome a divine intervention that wasn’t part of the traditional story! The divine interventions in the stories was expected by the audience, in the same way modern Christian readers of the ‘Left Behind’ series of novels were not surprised by the Second Coming of Christ at the end which did solve the Antichrist problem. (I was not a Christian when I started reading them, but even I expected that ‘Second Coming’ event since book one.)

In your real-world writing life, Deus ex machina as a failed story ending is different from what we might imagine. It does not need to involve God or ‘the gods.’ It usually involves unexpected, surprise help from a powerful source— a king or president, a scientific discovery or a space-alien intervention, whatever.

The problem is not the powerful helper, but in the fact that it is unexpected and a surprise, and that also the main character did nothing to earn it. In our own real lives, we don’t have all our problems solved by a divine miracle or by a president making a visit to our town on our behalf. We usually have to work and suffer to try to fix our problems, and it may not work even then.

Also, real world instances that seem to be possible divine intervention— such as when God allowed the Blessed Mother to appear to Bernadette in Lourdes and the three shepherd children in Fatima— the divine intervention didn’t solve problems but caused them. The Fatima children were even taken to jail and threatened with being boiled alive!

The reason the true Deus ex machina is a bad story ending is that it makes things too easy for our lead character. We don’t enjoy following the adventures of characters that have it all so easy. We like the Harry Potters who are little babies when a major evil wizard tries to kill them, or the Katniss Everdeens who have to volunteer for what seems like certain death in the Hunger Games to save a vulnerable younger sister.

In Mercedes Lackey’s book, Aerie, there is what a cynic might describe as a literal Deus ex machina towards the end. Several Egyptian gods intervene so the main characters won’t be destroyed by an enemy army lead by a monster who was becoming a goddess. But that’s just at the end of the book. The main characters have to go through a lot of struggles and hard work to get to the point where the gods intervene. Mercedes Lackey, having published probably as many as 50 books by the time she wrote Aerie (part of The Dragon Jousters series which I highly recommend, at least to mature readers.) She is too good a writer to put in an actual Deus ex machina ending.

I once read a critique of ‘Christian fiction’ by someone who didn’t seem to have actually read any. He claimed that all Christian fiction has an ending in which a miracle from God solves everything. I have read quite a bit of Christian fiction, both evangelical and Catholic, and I’ve never read a book where a miracle solves anything. To see an example, read the ’Saint Tommy’ series by Catholic author Declan Finn. His character Tommy Nolan is a NYC cop who has been given by God some ‘wonder-working’ abilities like the ability to bilocate and to smell demonic evil. But that doesn’t fix his problems, but makes him a major target of both demon-possessed criminals and of progressive politicians.

In your own writing, you can keep from unintentionally writing a Deus ex machina by richly providing your Lead character with problems. Let him work on the problems with his own efforts. Let him suffer! If he does receive special help, whether divine or otherwise, don’t let that solve the problems for him. Yes, sometimes especially in Christian fiction a character may have to trust in the Lord for something instead of trying to fix it himself, but deciding to trust the Lord is also an action. And your character must act, not just be buffeted between helpful and oppositional forces.