Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Christy Award Winner Athol Dickson's LOST MISSION

"Lost Mission is a story about mistakes and miracles, taken directly from the headlines of our time, and the history of times long past." --Athol Dickson

Athol Dickson’s novels have been favorably compared to the work of Octavia Butler (Publisher’s Weekly), Daphne du Maurier (, by Cindy Crosby, Christianity Today fiction critic), and Flannery O’Connor (The New York Times). His They Shall See God was a Christy Award finalist. River Rising was selected as one of the Booklist Top Ten Christian Novels of 2006 and was a Christianity Today's Best Novel of 2006 finalist. Both River Rising and The Cure won Christy Awards for best suspense novel. Winter Haven was a finalist for the 2009 Christy Award in the suspense category, making four novels in a row to receive that honor. His seventh novel, Lost Mission, was recently released. I asked Athol to tell us the "story behind the story" of Lost Mission. Here's his reply:

From the beginning I intended Lost Mission to be an epic suspense story spanning two centuries and brimming with magical realism. It’s about Lupe de la Garza, a simple shopkeeper in a mountain village in Mexico, who believes God wants her to go to America to preach the gospel. She is guided on her quest by her people’s greatest treasure: an altarpiece painted by an eighteenth century Franciscan friar who founded her village after fleeing the mysterious destruction of his California mission outpost. When Lupe is distracted by desire for a young minister, and when her preaching in a southern California beach town inspires only apathy and laughter, she begins to lose faith in her mission. Then a slumbering evil that destroyed the friar’s Franciscan mission rises up again after two hundred years, and Lupe once more looks to the altarpiece for guidance, only to find the true purpose of her quest in the midst of her single greatest fear.

Those of you who have already read my novels know I work hard to come up with unusual stories, and as you can probably tell from the description above, Lost Mission is no exception. It interweaves two storylines: the modern life of the remarkable Lupe and those whom she encounters, and a historical tale of the founding and destruction of a Franciscan mission in what is now called southern California. The story involves not only a poor Mexican who comes to America to try to save our souls, but also a modern day Robin Hood who steals from rich Christians to give to the poor, and a grieving billionaire who would rather build a community of monastic isolation exclusively for Christians than face a fallen world. Woven through all of this is an underlying sense of doom, as we begin to see eerie connections between what these people do, and what destroyed the original Franciscan mission in the same location more than two hundred years before. All of it is set in beautiful surroundings, where hummingbirds shoot like little rockets among cascades of crimson bougainvillea and the constant trickle of Spanish fountains.

The idea for Lost Mission began to come to me a few years ago, as I watched two separate but related scenarios playing out in the American church. First I read an article which claimed South Korea sends more evangelical missionaries than any other nation except the USA, yet in 1980 there were only 93 South Korean missionaries in the world. Astonishing! I was also shocked to learn that the USA does not even rank in the top ten nations in terms of missionaries sent per congregation. I learned this shortly after the Episcopalian church elected Gene Robinson as their first openly homosexual bishop. In that case, I was amazed when African and Latin American bishops in the Anglican tradition offered to allow dissenting Episcopal parishes to disassociate themselves from Robinson’s diocese and join theirs. So we now have Protestant churches in America functioning under the authority of bishops in Africa and Latin America, a startling reversal of the pattern of centuries past. All of this radically changed my paradigm, as I began to see the USA through the eyes of Christians from what we once condescendingly called the “third world.” I realized many believers on other continents no longer view the USA as a source of Christian thought and support, but see us rather as a people in tragic decline with a dire need for the Gospel. How did we come to this? It was a question ripe for exploration in a novel, so I tucked it away for more consideration.

A little later, I observed an ongoing theological discussion between members of the “seeker friendly” movement, the emerging church movement, and more traditional evangelicals. What I saw made me think I might have stumbled onto at least part of the answer to my question. Rather than approaching each other as loving brothers with mutual respect and a willingness to assume the best, these Christians came with narrow agendas, intent on pontificating about their point of view whether the other guy was listening or not. The theological discussion rapidly devolved into questioning each other’s motives, and eventually sank to the level of insults. I found this especially intriguing, because these Christians who all believed they were so different were in fact all sinning against each other in exactly the same ways. Could this experience offer a glimpse into the reasons for a shift of Christian influence from the North American continent to Africa, Asia and Latin America? Again, the question seemed perfect for a novel.

Everything began to come together when I visited the Spanish mission at San Juan Capistrano. I was intrigued by the beauty of the place—if you haven’t been there, you really must go—and especially by its history. Reading between the lines, it seemed to me that many of the same mistakes I saw the modern church making in the USA had already been made centuries before, by the Franciscans who settled in California. With that thought a framework for the story of Lost Mission began to rise in my imagination, and eventually it became the story as it is.

If you’ve never read one of my novels, I hope you’ll start with Lost Mission. If you do, I think you’ll discover that my stories are hard to define. Lost Mission is not a classic suspense story in the wonderful way Brandilyn writes suspense, yet it will still keep you on the edge of your seat much as she does. It’s not a romance, although two of the main characters are driven into impossible circumstances by forbidden love. It’s not fantasy, but many of the events are quite mysterious and—dare I say it?—magical. And it’s not exactly literature, although I hope you will agree with the critics so far, who are saying things like, “Lost Mission is redemptive storytelling at its highest level . . . ” (Jake Chism, I think at heart, Lost Mission is simply a story about mistakes and miracles, taken directly from the headlines of our time, and the history of times long past.

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Lynette Eason said...

I love your books, Athol. Can't wait to get my hands on this one.


Sheila Deeth said...

After reading this I'm really eager to find the book. A fascinating subject.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Athol, I look forward to reading this book--as I do all your novels.

Athol Dickson said...

I hope you all enjoy Lost Mission. And thanks so much, Brandilyn, for letting me talk about it here!