Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Chayatocha, Or: Should Christian Fiction be Left Behind?

I've been following Fred Clark's brilliant deconstruction of the Left Behind Series for some time now. So far, I continue to be astonished anew by what an astoundingly horrible Babel-scale tower of fly-encrusted steaming feces it is, whenever Fred Clark at Slacktivist or one of his commentators digs some new chunk of it out with a pitchfork for analysis. I have not yet reached a point where I no longer have to re-calibrate my Disgust-O-Meter to keep it from being overloaded.

Given the enormous sales success of the Left Behind series, it's easy to generalize from the attitudes presented in those books to the attitudes and beliefs held by their audience, American conservative protestant Christians. One doesn't have to read too far into the Left Behind books, or Clark's commentary on them to realize that this could lead to some rather terrifying generalizations about a large segment of the population of the United States.

Then there's the fact that the writing in the Left Behind Series is just so utterly horrible. Again, given the sales figures, one might be led to make all kinds of unsavory judgments about the intelligence and taste of American Christians.

Though I disagree strongly with most of the beliefs and political views of "Bible-believing Christians," I would like to offer what amounts to a "case for the defense," in the form of another Christian novel, Chayatocha by Shane Johnson.

 Chayatocha is (as described by one of the comment blurbs on the back cover) a "spiritual warfare novel," or what might otherwise be called a Christian horror tale, set in the Wild West.

Here's the back jacket copy:

Daniel Paradine is a man of education and reason, devoted to his wife and son, and dedicated to leading them safely to Oregon. But when their wagon train is led into a treacherous mountain detour and horrifying attacks begin to pick apart the small group, Paradine must confront the beast responsible for the nightmare--a creature that defies all logic and spares the teacher only to accomplish its most sinister desire.

Can a man without God survive an enigmatic evil bent on destruction? Or will Daniel Paradine take the devil's deal in exchange for his family's life?

The back cover taken by itself is a better story by far than LaHaye and Jenkins' miserable abortion of a book series.

Daniel Paradine

This, in my opinion, is actually a pretty good name for a protagonist in a Western. It stands out as a little larger than life, without screaming "MAAARTY STUUUU!" It's not hard to imagine "Daniel Paradine" cocking a Winchester saddle-ring carbine as his long duster flutters in a forlorn desert breeze, should he turn out to be that sort of hero. Grizzled cowboys and miners and the like can drawl out "Paradiiine" in a way that fits with the setting. Maybe a little too close to "David Carradine," but so what, I like it.

It is notably not a porntastic Phallic Compensator name like those of the pseudo-protagonists in the LB Series, Rayford Steele and Cameron "Buck" Williams. We are not forced to choke back snickers like the centurions in Life of Brian every time we read it. So, right from the start, it looks like we might be given a protagonist we can believe in.

a man of education and reason,

OK, this is a dogwhistle. We know what's coming. Scully's Paradine's puny logic and reason will be no match for the supernatural forces he's about to be arrayed against, and his only hope will be to fall to his knees and accept Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior. This is a "spiritual warfare" novel.

In conservative Christianoid culture, "a man of education and reason" is also code for All That's Wrong With The World--lib'rul elite city-boy, not one of us Real 'Murikans. So, we might have good reason to suspect that Paradine will be portrayed unsympathetically at least until he converts.

devoted to his wife and son, and dedicated to leading them safely to Oregon

But look, a ray of light! Even though he's referred to later as "a man without God," he is described here as being able to deeply care for other human beings and have their safety as his foremost concern. Johnson could very easily have had Paradine be a loner who don't care 'bout nobody nohow, working as a hired guide for the wagon train for money, or a gold miner on a quest for riches. We could have seen Paradine mocking the preacher-man, trying to seduce all the sweet golden-haired Christian girls in their pretty little bonnets and long dresses while generally being a towering asshat (until he Sees The Light). That sort of character is a Western trope, and twisted just a little it could easily be conformed to an RTC1 propaganda-type of the Evil Unbeliever Without Morals or Meaning.

But Paradine--so far as we can tell from this back-jacket copy--does have morals, at least when it comes to his own family. And, he has a definite purpose in life: protecting them through a long, dangerous journey to Oregon. He is "devoted" and "dedicated."

Now, LaHaye and Jenkins (hereafter referred to dismissively as "Ellenjay"2) might be inclined to protest that their guy Rayford Steele was a "dedicated family man" even before his conversion. However, our first glimpse of Ray-gun shows him engaging in a creepy, long-term psychological torture/pseudo-affair with his senior flight attendant, while reasoning that his 40-year-old wife is still "attractive and vivacious enough" to keep him from nuzzling his fully-loaded 747 up to some other terminal. Well, apart from that "private necking session." But that doesn't count, she was a nameless skirt.

Our first glimpse of Paradine shows him walking alongside his family's prairie schooner,3 thinking about the family's decision to come west:

Their [eight year-old] son, Michael, of course had been a consideration. Should we take our son away from all he has known? Should we expose him to the risks of the journey? Should we leave him behind, to be cared for in familiar surroundings? For weeks, Paradine and his wife had debated, bouncing from one side of the issue to the other. Finally, the boy's unbridled enthusiasm for the adventure had helped them make the decision... (p.18)

Now, note that this is the Wild West. If there's one setting where an author can get away with having a Manly Man make the Big Decisions and have his devoted, obedient wife and child follow meekly, this is probably it. But Paradine and his wife wrestle together with their most difficult decision and they make it, together. Even their young son's input is welcomed. This looks to be a very healthy set of family relationships.

Paradine's first act when he comes out of scene-setting reminiscence is to respond to his thirsty child's request for a drink of water. He checks his pocket watch--water is a scarce resource and has to be conserved carefully--and permits the boy a drink, while urging him to go easy. So from our first meeting with him, we see that Paradine's world isn't All About Paradine. He genuinely cares about other people, their needs and feelings, and is doing his best to see them safely through a difficult journey. We learn that his ankles ache from walking, and his spectacles get coated with dust. He's a human being we can care about and empathize with.

If this seems like astonishment at what ought to be commonplace (shouldn't all novel protagonists be likable human beings?), it is a bright contrast to the sociopathic "protagonists" in the Left Behind Series. And at this point he is, according to the book jacket, "a man without God." "A man of education and reason." A man or woman fitting that description rarely gets such a sympathetic portrayal even in secular fiction. That Shane Johnson manages to avoid falling into an Intellectual Unbelievers Are Stupid or Evil rut in a Christian novel says a lot for him as an author, and as a Christian. Where Ellenjay spend more than a dozen books fantasizing about the sufferings (their idea of) God will inflict on unbelievers, Johnson is able to empathize with one and make an effort to portray him as a good human being.

Paradine must confront the beast responsible for the nightmare--a creature that defies all logic and spares the teacher only to accomplish its most sinister desire.

So now we learn that Paradine is a teacher. The first chapter explains that he has been invited to come and found a public school and a library in a frontier town in the Oregon Territory. This is something I've never seen in a Western. He's not a cowboy or a gunslinger or a sheepherder or a farmer or a gold prospector or a cattle-baron. He's not Out For Revenge. He's even a subversion of the Western trope that the "teacher" is the pretty young lady a man with a name like "Paradine" would be untying from the railroad tracks. So, even apart from the demonic horror angle, we have something fresh and new. Are you listening, Ellenjay?

a creature that defies all logic

So we can probably expect some swipes at things like rationality and critical thought, along with a weighty dollop of "just believe." But then, we get that in Star Wars, The X-Files, and so many other stories that we will probably be able to overlook this little bit of upcoming anviliciousness as long as we can like the characters and enjoy the plot.

Can a man without God survive an enigmatic evil bent on destruction? Or will Daniel Paradine take the devil's deal in exchange for his family's life?

While I think we can guess that Paradine will Accept Jesus Into His Heart, and thus become empowered to use the Magic Words to banish the demon, this blurb implies that he will face a genuine spiritual crisis. He'll be confronted with some kind of Faustian bargain with the lives of his wife and son as the stakes. This presupposes that Paradine's wife and son matter to him enough that he really might risk his soul for them.

We can't imagine anything like this happening to Ray-gun or Camshaft4 over in the LB-verse. When a demon (of sorts...) steals Ray-gun's wife and son, he goes right back to work the next day. What little narrator-stated grief he does have is never enough to alter his behavior. Camshaft apparently sprang from the brow of Zeus fully-formed, probably as Athena's afterbirth (she got all the brains and personality). He appears to have no parents who are worried about him (or whom he's worried about), no siblings, no nieces and nephews who inexplicably vanished. He's too busy buying a new car and renting a fancy new condo (with phones!5) to give a moment's thought to such things.

Chayatocha's demon would have to offer them jobs as his personal pilot and propagandist with a dinner at the Yacht Club thrown in6 to get their souls, rather than wasting their time negotiating over mere human lives. Contrast Paradine's impending spiritual crisis with the jacket copy for Tribulation Force:

Rayford Steele, Buck Williams, Bruce Barnes, and Chloe Steele band together to form the Tribulation Force. Their task is clear, and their goal is nothing less than to stand and fight the enemies of God during the seven most chaotic years the planet will ever see.

No crisis of faith for these guys. Their struggle, if it should be called such, is described in purely Manichean terms. It's them, vs. "the enemies of God." There's no choices involved when you phrase it like that. It's a Holy Crusade, where there would be no problem with a "kill them all, God will know His own" approach. It's a totalitarian morality in which your moral stature is decided by which gang you're in: the Trib Farce, or the Enemies of God.

Furthermore, the jacket copy lies! Their task is clear? Really? "Stand and fight the enemies of God"--over what? What are the stakes of their battle? What do they have to win or lose? Fight them--how? With guns and homemade grenades (Wolveriiiines!)? With underground newspapers? With a network of hidden shelters for people fleeing the Antichrist's tyranny? A single sentence could have drawn the general dimensions of the Trib Farce's struggle. "With the preaching of the Gospel forbidden on pain of death, can they reach out to a lost and dying world with the Truth?" "As the Antichrist's global totalitarian state takes form, the Tribulation Force struggles against impossible odds to provide safe havens for the thousands of new believers fleeing the darkest tyranny Earth has ever known.." In the LB Series, there are no stakes, no risk, no possibility of defeat--and hence, no heroism.

The fact that Paradine's story centers on choice--will he accept the demon's bargain or not--while the Trib Farce's centers on a Manichean "with us or with the enemies of God" identity politics is highly significant. That alone indicates to me that Shane Johnson is a far more psychologically healthy human being than Ellenjay. And, needless to say, a much better writer.

In a nutshell, I think Chayatocha will turn out to be a far, far better story than LB, with better characters and a real plot with actual suspense and struggle. From what I've read so far, I think Johnson will even handle the Anvil Drop in a way that will be no worse than Obi-Wan Kenobi telling Luke to cut himself off at the neck and just "feel."

With this, I'm kicking off what I hope will be a regular feature here, "Fiction Fridays," starting (hopefully) this Friday with the first installment of commentary on Chayatocha contrasted with the Left Behind books, Tribulation Force in particular.

ERRATA: Apparently, Camshaft doestry to call relatives, his father, and his brother Jeff. Upon failing to find out if they are still alive or not, he goes on to a higher priority: pursuing the Jewish Banker Conspiracy story.


1. "RTC" stands for "Real, True Christian," the self-assessment of the type of Christian who believes that anyone (even other Christians) who thinks differently from themselves is bound for Hell.Back

2. "LaHaye and Jenkins"---->L&J---->"Ellenjay"Back

3. The author tells us that pioneers didn't ride in their wagons, so that the wagons could be used to carry more stores and equipment instead of human weight. I don't know if this is historically true or not, but it makes sense that people traveling a long way between sources of resupply with the intent of making a home in a distant wilderness would do this. What this does show us is that Johnson cares enough about his story to think about details like this. Reading Johnson's descriptions of things like the way prairie schooners were engineered to be strong yet lightweight ("fashioned of hickory, maple or oak, with iron used sparingly and only where its strength was vital") gives the impression that he Did His Research. At least it sounds credible to readers who aren't historical re-enactors, and that's good enough, IMO, Shane Johnson would not have a Rapture nobody noticed, as Ellenjay do in the LB Series.Back

4. "Camshaft" is my nickname for Cameron Williams, the investigative reporter character in LB who prefers to be known by his porn-star alias, "Buck." Because of the way he's shown using this self-given "nickname" to insult a female supervisor in a horribly misogynistic scene in Tribulation Force, I refuse to call him "Buck" on principle.Back

5. The Left Behind novels are filled with a bizarre phone fetish, to the point that entire scenes are narrated through telephone conversations in place of description.Back

6. Believe it or not, the...well, we can't call them "heroes"...of the LB Series do accept fancy dinners and cushy jobs from the Antichrist himself, which ought to be exceedingly bizarre to the books' intended audience, seeing as the Antichrist is supposed to be the literal embodiment of pure evil.Back


  1. Yay! Looking forward to more on this book.

    One techie question -- can you use "anchors" to link to the notes? It certainly would make it easier to move back and forth.

  2. I'm not sure if Blogger will let me do that (techno-ignorance), but I'll see if I can make that happen.