As laid out in the first-ever Evan Yeong Literary Awards, the purpose of these blog posts has been to provide a retrospective of the books read in the past year. Typically these have been written and published in January, but here we are. Better late than never, as I always say.
This is the first of these awards to be written during my relatively new career in publishing. While I wouldn’t say I have a strong understanding of the ins and outs of what’s hot in the industry, I certainly have a healthier grasp of things, especially compared to past years when I had none whatsoever.
The other notable difference is that the list of books read has been censored in part, due to a number of the books having been unsolicited manuscripts that I was asked to read during my time as an Editorial Intern at Penguin Random House Canada. A handful were also unpublished manuscripts or ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies) and have been marked as such. You can check out a full list [with the exact dates of when I read each one] at this link.
ALMOST AS COMPLEX AS THEIR NAMESAKE
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan
Those who aren’t as familiar with the works of C.S. Lewis should know that “Aslan” is the name of the Judeo-Christian-God-stand-in of that author’s Narnia series. The lion is a complex figure, embodying a dichotomy of a being that is “isn’t safe” while also “good”. Aslan himself is a likewise complicated man, having been raised Muslim, converted to Christianity in his teens, then back to Islam, a faith he continues to practice, and did during the writing of this book. A fascinating fact for both believers and nonbelievers alike is his statement that whether or not he was the son of God, the Nazarene definitively performed miracles.
SHOULD HAVE WON THE 2017 GILLER PRIZE
Brother by David Chariandy
One of many short, powerful works of fiction that I read this year, Brother is as unpretentious and beautiful a novel as you’re likely to find, and a worthy contender for Canada’s loftiest and most coveted literary prize. Shining a spotlight on Scarborough in the 90s, an area that I have (recently) shamefully joked about only “technically being Toronto”, this book would have served as a reminder of the real life stories that are overlooked and underheard.
The actual winner of the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize was Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square, which I read the ARC of. Brother was longlisted. Continue reading →
EVAN: The particular topic of discussion that comes to us today is more one that finds itself passed back and forth within Christian circles, and that is: “Why is Christian media so bad?”
GORDON: I think the problem is self-imposed by the religion (I use the term loosely) itself. We’re not talking about a lack of funding (we’ve got plenty of good low-budget films), or a lack of good directors (there’s plenty of decent talent out there), we’re talking about an issue that runs right down the core of it all.
“Christian” media can’t just be media- they have to drag in everything that goes with it.
EVAN: So basically what you’re saying, and we talked about this a little earlier, is that Christian media more often than not has an agenda, correct?
GORDON: I’d say plenty of it has an agenda, but no, I don’t think that’s the core issue- there’s plenty of other preachy movies out there.
EVAN: So what are you saying, exactly?
GORDON: I’m saying that “Christians” can’t make good media because they won’t allow themselves to. Every protagonist has to fit the moral code to a tee, so that they wind up as either Aslan 2.0 or the epitome of Christian morality: John Smith, the middle class suburban, patriotic family man. Which is why I keep putting “Christian” in quotation marks.
We’re not talking about Catholic peasants in El Salvador or the East Orthodox Church in Ethiopia.
EVAN: Okay, I like that a lot, this idea that those creators of Christian media [and primarily I think we’re talking about films] box themselves in. They’re telling the same sorts of stories to who they perceive to be their audience [and they’re not wrong]: white suburban middle class families.
To sort of break this up a little, I actually saw a Christian film that was reasonably passable at some point last summer.
GORDON: Was it related in any way to Steve Taylor?
EVAN: Is that any way related to “End of the Spear”? It was not, if that’s what you’re referring to.
GORDON: Steve Taylor is the only good Christian musician who ever has or ever will have existed.
But anyway, what was the movie you saw?
EVAN: It was called “To Save a Life,” and it stood out for a couple of reasons:
1) The cinematography was shockingly good for something produced and made by Christians. You can tell which movies they are within the first few seconds.
2) The “villain” of the piece was actually the pastor’s kid. Which was- refreshing, and kind of nice.
It kind of broke out of the whole stereotype you introduced earlier.
GORDON: Huh- interesting. I’ll have to check out the trailer. But let me ask you this:
Can a Christian make a James Bond movie?
EVAN: You mean a movie starring a suave, debonair British man who beds women and guns down henchmen as naturally as he dons his suit jacket every morning?
I’d say no, probably not.
GORDON: I think that’s the problem. It’s not just that you can’t have any explicit sex or graphic violence or excessive profanity (which are overused and abused as is), you can’t have anything even remotely sensual or rough or crude. It rips away reality and humanity in the name of not stepping on anyone’s toes.
EVAN: Well, I’d say the difference is that you can’t have a protagonist who glorifies such things as wanton sexuality-
I say that Christian filmmakers will never produce anything like James Bond because of who the character is.
GORDON: Did you like the movie “Fight Club”?
EVAN: I liked it a fair amount.
GORDON: Did you like “Ocean’s 11” or “Snatch”?
EVAN: I haven’t seen the latter, but I very much enjoyed the former.
GORDON: Did you like “Superbad”? “Kick-Ass”? “Ironclad”?
But I think you’re going to have to get to your point-
GORDON: Could a Christian make any of these movies?
EVAN: I think a Christian could, yes. In relation to “Fight Club”, at least, Christian author Ted Dekker has penned novels [sold both in and out of Christian bookstores] which offer a fairly decent psychological thriller aspect to the reader.
GORDON: Ah, Dekker. The whole reason he stands out as an exception is- I believe- that he grew up among Indonesian headhunters, and not in Middle America. Again, it’s about having that different perspective on life.
EVAN: And I think what he’s realized, as a creator of the arts, as someone who has a hand in shaping Christian media, is that you can have these other sorts of exciting, thrilling stories told with a faith-built worldview. People of every religion want a little excitement.
GORDON: Of that there’s no question. The heavy use of the video library at our school stands in testament to that.
But again I think the issue is that “Christian” self-imposed isolation inevitably leads to the vast majority of their work winding up as “White People Problems” or “Chronicles-of-Narnia-minus-the-good-stuff”…
EVAN: Or “Lord-of-the-Rings-but-way-more-heavy-handed.”
EVAN: I mean, we’ve talked a little bit about why Christian media can be bad [terrible production values, cookie-cutter story lines, sheer absurdity], but how could it be better [to harken back a little to our last talk]?
GORDON: They have to stop being terrified of the big bad world. They have to realize they can show characters with flaws- real flaws- not drunkard stereotypes and the occasional swear word.
Saying this will get you expelled from Liberty, Pensacola, and BJU
EVAN: I mean, a deeply flawed person who finds redemption is a much more compelling story than a white bread sort of guy with his middle class problems.
And they have to stop coddling their audience. Yes, Christians turn to Christian media for “better alternatives,” but the odd cuss word won’t negate an overall positive message; neither will a fight scene, or two guys sitting around enjoying a beer.
GORDON: There’s this one scene in a (Christian) movie Steve Taylor directed:
A character hurts his hand loading something into the back of van. He lets loose a cuss word and his buddy chides him for it, saying “God don’t like it when we cuss.”
Later on in the film, the buddy hangs his head and apologizes, saying “I’m sorry. I was upset that you cussed- I should’ve just been upset that you hurt your hand.”
EVAN: Wow. That is very, very good.
GORDON: That right there is the problem not just with Christian media, but with the whole religion.
EVAN: Misplaced priorities.
GORDON: More obsessed with present clean-cut paragons of middle class etiquette than anything really real.
That’s why we turn to “secular” movies for actual substance. The struggle for identity in “Fight Club”, the heroism in “Kick-Ass”, the friendship in “Superbad.”
EVAN: I think what’s really ironic is that Christian media-makers have a Christian-made work out there that’s immensely popular. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” came out just this past December.
GORDON: I again reference an (alleged) quote by Steve Taylor.
“I’m not a Christian artist- I’m an artist who is Christian- it affects what I do.”
EVAN: Really well-put. And something that a lot of us [I speak for many in our graduating class] as writers, musicians, artists, et cetera would benefit from keeping in mind.
And that puts us more than a little overtime.
GORDON: Well, people, you know what that means. Time to vote on our subject for next week.
EVAN: My contribution this time around is . . . wow, I never think ahead . . . masculinity. You’ve done a post about “Manly Culture” in the past, but I want to talk about what it is at present, and how we feel about the shifts and trends and things.
GORDON: Interesting subject. I submit we speculate on the upcoming Star Wars movies.
EVAN: If you think you’re up for it, then yeah, cool. I’ve read quite a few of the post-original-trilogy books, so I know a reasonable amount about the subject.
And with that witty response, we’re out! Have a good night, everyone.
So last Friday I came across the following trailer for a movie called Harmless. Here it is:
In the spring semester of last year I took a writing class called Literary Nonfiction. One of the required reading pieces was Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, by Andy Crouch. The general gist of the book was that as Christians we have the ability to create our own culture. We live in the world, but we don’t need to be of it. If we can’t find anything out there that we can agree to be part of than we can make our own.
That being said, I’m not sure that I can necessarily support this film. I understand why they did it, though. I’ve seen Paranormal Activity; I understand the way fear is exacerbated by the intimacy of the mockumentary format. I get that if you want to talk to people about your faith movies are a great way to do it, and the horror genre is an extremely popular one. The problem is that it’s ridiculous.
I won’t lie and say that pornography is all well and good. I do believe that it is degrading to women and can be extremely harmful to relationships and families. I will even go so far as to say that there is a dangerous spiritual component involved, but this is not the time or place to discuss that. I can also tell you what porn is not, though. Porn is not poltergeists.
I can’t agree with a film that could potentially be more ridiculous than the 2006 film Facing the Giants. Trailer seen here:
This was a film that just dripped with cheese. It’s difficult for me to put into words how awful it was. The messages were certainly positive, but weren’t delivered in a way that was well-written or even believable. If Christian media wants to be taken seriously by those outside of its target audience it has to at least be a decent example of its art form.
I’m all for Christian media, or at least media with a Christian message of sorts. Ted Dekker’s novels Blink and Thr3e are well-written and actually very good. What I wish is that this would spread to the film industry, that as Christians we could do better at making and affecting culture around us, instead of creating something laughable.