It’s a Rather Dark Tale

Dear Probe,

I really appreciate all that Probe Ministries does for the body of Christ and for reaching out to the searching and lost. My 13 year old niece recently got a book from the library entitled “Sacred Scars” by author Kathleen Duey. I was wondering if someone there at Probe is familiar with this author and her books. It is a rather dark tale and I as her concerned Uncle not at all thrilled that she likes reading these kind of books. Any assistance you can throw my way would be greatly appreciated.

Dear Sir,

I’m sorry for the delayed response; we’re all catching up a bit from the holidays. Your niece has probably finished the book by now and is onto something else. Sorry about that. Nonetheless, I hope I can be helpful, whether she is still reading this or some other dark tale.

First, I must ask you: have you read the book? We can only help our teenagers engage what they’re reading with a biblical worldview if we do.

I’m not very familiar with the series or the author; however after scanning through a few reviews, I understand your concern. I’m a big Fantasy-Fiction fan. I thoroughly enjoyed The Lord of the Rings and practically devoured the Harry Potter series. Needless to say, I can relate to your niece’s affinity for dark stories. Sacred Scars is book two of a yet-to-be completed trilogy, a trilogy described as, “dark, complex, and completely compelling.” And life is like that sometimes, isn’t it? But what’s compelling? The darkness? Not likely. From this synopsis of the first book, Skin Hunger, what’s compelling is magic’s fight to survive, and the connectivity of us all, even centuries apart. This reminds me of Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia where in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the deep magic has been suppressed, and all of Narnia waits for it to be released by Aslan when children from another time and place come in and fulfill the prophesy.

Even though Duey’s series seems to me a bit darker than Lewis’s (The Silver Chair may be his darkest in the Narnia series), light has a tricky way of sneaking into everything… especially stories, many times even unbeknownst to the author, sometimes even against his or her wishes. And so it is critical that as Christians we engage art (which novels often are) on the lookout for ways in which we can point out the connection of all stories to God’s Original Shimmering Story.

It’s important to engage (not merely absorb or avoid) secular artists and writers, though not all of them, and certainly not by everyone. And it’s the which and by whom and how that requires more individual discernment than general guidelines. Therefore, what I have to offer is a way of thinking through dark and light themes and stories that I hope will be helpful.

Madeleine L’Engle (best known for A Wrinkle in Time) points out that, “Artistic temperament sometimes seems a battleground, a dark angel of destruction and a bright angel of creativity wrestling.” And I wonder if those with artistic sensibilities aren’t gifted with this schizophrenia precisely because that’s the battle without as well and it is the writer, painter, sculptor, film director who sometimes better than anyone is able to tell the truth (Frederick Buechner Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale).

It is vital to tell the truth about the darkness as well as the light; to be honest about both the darkness within and the darkness without. Otherwise, the light has no meaning. And nothing to do for that matter: nothing to penetrate, illuminate, warm, expose.

For the Christian, it is our duty to tell the whole story: Creation, Fall, Redemption: Once Upon a Time… in a Dark and Strange Land… And They Lived Happily Ever After. It isn’t always possible to tell such a grand story all at once, and because when we tell God’s Story we’re also telling our story, we get dark and brooding psalms from David, we get blue and difficult albums like Switchfoot‘s Nothing Is Sound… the list goes on and on. And so, we must allow artists (and the creative types who generally like dark stories) dark seasons; seasons during which we worry about them and ache for them and pray for them, and gently imbue light (because the acceptance of light can’t be forced). Likewise, it’s important that we don’t immediately write off dark art, even when it offers no hope at all.

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was required reading for me in high school, and most of my classmates hated it, which I can understand because it is terribly dark. But for me this book was an important light bulb moment in my life. I have a vivid memory of reading on my bed thinking, So this is what life is like without hope. And my ability to empathize with this dark and hurting world ballooned. It was then that I first realized that every story tells God’s story, even this one which tells the story of his absence: what life is like without him.

L’Engle (quoted above) goes on to say, “When the bright angel dominates, out comes a great work of art, a Michelangelo David or a Beethoven symphony.” And she’s right of course, because darkness never defeats light, even the tiniest, faintest glimmer; and the darker it is, the more it stands out. After all, “You can only come to the morning through the shadows” (JRR Tolkien). For “the shadow proves the sunshine” (Switchfoot) and not the other way around like Freud and company would like us to believe.

Blessings to you, ______! The teenage years seem like such a gamble, don’t they? Moody and foreign to us, full of wobbly discovery and potential.

Thanks for writing.

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4 Responses to It’s a Rather Dark Tale

  1. malcolmguite says:

    I think this is a really balanced and helpful approach. A child’s imagination will always encounter both darkness and light, but those of us who believe that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never overcome it need not be afraid of dark tales, but rather see them as an opportunity for spiritual growth and development. After all we have a scripture that contains the Book of Job! In my experience as a teacher and writer, well written fantasy literature can communicate gospel values and insights in a way that no other medium can. All the more so when parents have the time (and courage) to read with their children.

    • reneamac says:

      Thanks Malcolm!

      I agree that fantasy-fiction brings something quite singular to the table and serves, or can serve, as an important informer to theology/life. I wonder if that’s, in part, because of the other worldliness of the Kingdom of God.

      What do you think?

      • malcolmguite says:

        I think the special contribution of fantasy/imaginative fiction is that it embodies for us in visible, comprehensible, moving pictures, truths and intuitions which would otherwise be ungraspable, or disappear before we’d really understood them -it makes the abstract concrete. as Shakespeare put it in A Midsummer Nights Dream ‘Imagination apprehends more than cool reason ever comprehends’ and again in the same speech ‘Imagination bodies forth the form of things unknown, the poets pen turns them to sapes, and gives to airy nothingness a local habitation and a name’ That’s certainly what Tolkien and Lewis do for me
        M

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