Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Nightmare. Ghosts and Christians.

Is it possible to present an intriguing, convincing and entertaining story about ghosts while staying within an acceptable Christian framework? Can a genre usually associated with fear and horror, dealing with unknowns about life after death, be compatible with a faith that is supposed to have strong, established certainties regarding the “afterlife”?

I had a strong interest in the “ghost story”. I read a lot of them in the past. I also tried adding to the genre by writing my own stories. My interest wasn’t restricted to fictional ghosts, I read a lot of “true life” accounts and I participated on an internet mailing list of a group called “Ghostwatch.
This wasn’t merely for entertainment or academic reasons; I had some personal ghostly experiences: seeing an apparition in my Sydney home (seen by my wife as well) and also seeing shadowy human figures in a motel room two nights in a row.

A successful Christian ghost story would need to maintain the recognised conventions of the genre without compromising biblical theology. One of the major obstacles would be finding a plausible reason for the existence of ghosts. Does biblical truth allow for the continuing presence of the dead on earth? If not, then what kind of apparent force or intelligence is behind a haunting?

Not only do we have to address the major problem mentioned above, there is also the matter of intent. What reason is there behind the story? Traditionally the ghost story has been associated with fear – giving the reader a scare. Is that kind of aim compatible with a Christian outlook? Should the Christian writer intentionally set out with the primary aim of creating fear in the reader?

Robin Parish’s Nightmare did nothing to change my suspicion that the two are incompatible. While most of the book deals adequately with the “ghostly” side of the equation, the “Christian” side fails: presenting a mixture of superstition, and vague pop-theology in place of a biblically supportable view of life after death and the spiritual conflict between good and evil.

College student Maia Peters is the daughter of famous paranormal investigators (ghost hunters). Despite her desire to be free from the effects of her parents’ celebrity status, she is offered significant financial rewards to help wealthy fellow student Jordin Cole to have a genuine paranormal experience. Maia takes Jordin on a tour of several haunted sites around America and they witness an extraordinarily high level of strange events.

Jordin later goes missing and her fiancée Derek suspects Jordin’s paranormal dabbling with Maia is to blame. When the two try to find out what happened to Jordin they stumble across an occult conspiracy which seems to have Maia herself in its sights.

Parish maintains interest in the parts of the book devoted to the investigations, but when it comes to bringing it all together the story flounders. The climax brings in elements of Science fiction that didn’t really work for me personally, and its depiction of the demonic owed more to fantasy fiction than anything gleaned from scripture.

As a ghost story I found Nightmare was adequately entertaining but as a “Christian” influenced ghost story I thought it failed to deliver biblical consistency, a feature which surely MUST be the foundation of anything published with a Christian world view in mind.


Since I mentioned my own ghost experiences some might want to know what I think I saw.

I believe that ghosts are a distraction – or a diversion. They are a deception, offering a false alternative to the truth of the “after life” as revealed through the bible.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Visiting Lady Jane Grey and the Tudor period

While the calendar was moving another year ahead, I headed the other direction, visiting the past through a collection of historical fiction and non-fiction, in both book and film

I spent two or three weeks in Tudor England, with Lady Jane Grey and her family. Her most famous relatives were the Tudor Kings and Queens and her life ended violently like so many royal Tudor women.

Jane’s story is tragic. At only 15 she was manoeuvred onto the English throne to replace her recently deceased cousin Edward. She was quickly deposed by Mary, Edward’s older sister, and was eventually executed.

Viewing her story through various formats has shown me how difficult it must be to get an accurate understanding of history. There are many variables caused by gaps in evidence. If we want our history to be more than lists of facts and dates, we’ll have to recognise how much imagination and speculation play in its recording and reporting.

All of my books about Jane Grey presented more or less the same basic outline, but diverged slightly depending on the author’s own point of interest. For example Faith Cook’s book Lady Jane Grey: Nine Day Queen (non fiction) focused on Jane’s faith and how her protestant beliefs contributed to her death.

Alison Plowden in Lady Jane Grey and the House of Suffolk took a broader view and placed Jane within the context of her family, where they came from and the tragedies that continued after Jane’s death due to their proximity to the throne and the potential threat they could play to the reigning monarch. While Jane suffered at the hands of Mary, her surviving sisters suffered at the hands of Mary’s successor, Elizabeth, probably because they were next in line to the throne when Elizabeth had no children of her own.

Alison Weir’s book Innocent Traitor was fiction, but Weir is a respected historian and I found her story didn’t stray from what I learned from the other “factual” accounts. Her familiarity with Tudor times helped to flesh out Jane Grey’s world, giving depth to her cultural and physical environments. This is the only kind of historical fiction I’m interested in reading – where the known facts are not discarded, and nothing blatantly wrong is added merely for the sake of the story.

The 1980s film Lady Jane is a clear example of the latter. While half of the film does stay with the basic historical record, the other half is a sentimentalised romance where Jane becomes an impulsive, giggling girl far different from every other account of her story. The change comes after her forced marriage to Guilford Dudley, by all historical accounts not a happy relationship and one that rarely saw them together. Yet the film turns them into doting and inseparable partners who even manage to share a cell in the Tower of London after their arrest by Mary.

Another work of historical fictional that I read was Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, a winner of the Mann Booker Prize. While I enjoyed the book, which encouraged me to read further in the period depicted (I’m currently reading a biography of William Tyndale), it also made me wonder about the judging standards of one the most prestigious literary prizes. What made this book stand above others? Personally I found some of the writing was clumsy – often I didn’t know who was being written about. The main character Thomas Cromwell was mostly referred to as “he”, which was often confusing when the “he” in a sentence could also be one of the other characters. Mantel seemed to realise this herself in parts of the book and she made it clear by saying “he, Cromwell...” but that clarification was sporadic and inconsistent.

Also at times I felt that Mantel used inappropriately modern language – one example I recall was a reference to something being “stuffed up” when it was done wrong. Maybe that quibble is merely a sign of my own ignorance of Tudor idioms; perhaps the term does date back that far.

A graphic understanding of the period came through a miniseries Elizabeth I starring Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth. This film is not recommended for the squeamish, holding little back from its portrayal of beheadings and other executions, including drawing and quartering.

If nothing else, all of these accounts of the Tudor period show how tenuous the lives of those close to royalty could be. How easy it was to fall from favour and fall victim to the headsman’s axe (or worse).

I have a few more books about Lady Jane and Tudor times to read, so I'm sure I'll be returning to this subject beofre long.