Tuesday, November 18, 2008
UNPRETTY: The Truth of Evil
Recently I read Unpretty, a newly released suspense novel by Sharon Carter Rogers. I found the book interesting because of the reasons Sharon wrote it (see below). My own latest release, Dark Pursuit, was written because of a phrase and scene from John Milton's classic book, Paradise Lost, that had stuck in my head for 30 years. Sharon's Unpretty rose from her viewing a classic painting. In her guest post today, Sharon gives us the background on her novel:
Sometimes I wonder why I write suspense/thriller fiction.
It’s not like I set out to dream up scary stories for someone else’s entertainment. In fact, I just wanted to write stories…I didn’t think much about whether or not they’d be frightening, or even suspenseful. And my life is remarkably mundane for someone who dreams up macabre things to print. Somewhere in the back of my mind, though, when I started writing novels I must have been thinking about a quote attributed to Stephen King, “I just write about things that scare me.” I do that too, I think. And because I am Christian, things that scare me sometimes have to do with eternity.
Enter Michelangelo Buonarroti.
A few years ago I visited a bargain bookstore (yes! I’m cheap!) and saw a beautiful coffee-table book on the life and work of Michelangelo. I was instantly transfixed, so much so that I bought the book on a whim, brought it home, and immediately began churning through its pages. It was here that I first discovered Michelangelo’s scary/beautiful masterpiece, the Last Judgment – his depiction of the literal end of the world at Christ’s return.
This violent, graphic, huge painting actually adorns the altar wall of the world famous Sistine Chapel in Italy. If this painting were a movie, it would be rated NC-17 on the basis of nudity and violence alone. Yet it also breathtakingly depicts an artist’s interpretation of literal events described in the pages of Scripture itself.
The Last Judgment achieves an impression on the viewer that is both repugnant and holy. Terrifying and fascinating. Thrilling and peaceful.
This apparent juxtaposition of values was fascinating for me—and it sparked within me an exploration of the concept of God’s presence in darkness, in suffering, in art, in beauty and ugliness, in life, and in eternity. The result, as you can guess, was my latest suspense novel Unpretty. (Hey, I’m a novelist! What else did you expect?)
As I was writing Unpretty, I drew the most frightening literary scenes directly from the artistic scenes that Michelangelo included in his painting of the Last Judgment. And occasionally, while studying particular areas of the master’s artwork, I found myself asking questions like, “Wow, is it really appropriate to graphically display a nude man having his privates poisoned by a large snake on the altar wall of arguably the most famous Christian church in the world?” I can’t imagine the thousands of people who attend Saddleback Church or Willow Creek Community Church putting up with having to stare at THAT artistic vision while their pastors spoke each Sunday morning!
But I also realized that there was an honesty to Michelangelo’s depiction of evil. Judgment for sin is a messy, revolting thing. So much so that for me (and you) to be spared, it required the torture, humiliation, and naked execution of the Son of God himself.
So, I wrote Unpretty under the instruction of Michelangelo’s tutelage. Evil is real. Evil is ugly. Evil carries an element of truth, and when depicting evil you must tell the truth about it. It’s not the writer’s (or the artist’s) responsibility to glorify evil or to demonize evil. It’s the writer’s responsibility to tell the truth about evil – and its consequences – and then let that truth speak for itself. And to remind that, in the midst of that evil, the beauty of God’s redeeming presence still exists for those who will see it.
I’ve discovered that in the Christian publishing industry this can be a difficult approach to take. It seems we feel obligated to make sure the reader knows what’s “good” and “bad” in a story. We assume that if we aren’t startlingly clear on those topics, the Christian reader is too ignorant and easily offended to figure it out on her own. But I’ve found that most Christian readers are much more intelligent than we give them credit for being. (And, interestingly enough, several publishers turned down Unpretty because they were personally offended by the scenes drawn from the Michelangelo painting, saying those scenes were “too dark” and “not appropriate for Christians.” I was amused that my recreating scenes from this classic painting could be thought of as “not appropriate” for Christians when, for centuries, this huge image has been displayed prominently behind the pulpit of one of Christendom’s most revered churches!)
Which brings me back to the question I asked at the beginning. Why, I wonder, do I find it so necessary to write about scary things (like the Last Judgment) in the suspense/thriller genre of fiction? If my agent is correct, I could certainly make more money writing romance, or “women’s” fiction instead. And I would save myself the pain of getting hate mail telling me that my writing is “sadistic” and has “no redeeming value” for Christians!
But there is a certain truth in fear that I can’t avoid. And truth matters. It’s only through truth that I am able to enter an intimate relationship with the Spirit of Truth in Christ Jesus. This life is not always filled with sunshine and puppies; but it is always filled with the presence of God – even in darkness, even in pain, even in the moments of suspense that make the heartbeat drum in the ear and bring the faint smell of blood into the nostrils.
So, for now at least, I will write of the unpretty things. And I will hope that through those thriller/suspense stories, some reader somewhere will also get a glimpse of that which is eternal – and the One who makes all things beautiful.
Thanks so much for reading!
-- Sharon Carter Rogers
Sharon has donated two copies of Unpretty as giveaways to F&F readers. If you'd like a chance to win a copy, please leave a comment stating why you'd like to read it. I'll announce the winner's names tomorrow.