Master Paradox in Christian Fiction
(Christian Theory: Left Behind?)
The puppet master paradox is the unavoidable problem that comes from
"playing God" with characters, setting, situation, and plot
while writing about God's divine knowledge and power, thus placing the
creators of the artistic work in a God-like status, and subsequently
causing certain audiences to debate self-determination, control of the
imagination, and other issues of faith. Christian artists usually maintain
their creation of fictional worlds is fulfilling God's plan and that
they are merely serving as a messenger of his word, yet they must act
as God in their new imaginary realms if we accept any notion of free
will. The puppet master paradox pertains primarily to fiction and film;
the mere reporting of details "as it happened" is often interpreted
as documenting God's glory or the necessity for change to God's plan.
Poetry often does not attempt to define well-rounded characters and
thus is also usually not deconstructed by this paradox.
What is the problem with this paradox? It posits the author as God,
a grave sin in several interpretations of Christianity. Audiences must
decide whether the messages in the work are coming from the artist,
from God, or from God through the artist's interpretation. Do the characters
in the story have free will, and if they do not, who has predetermined
their role: God or the author? When a new work is created, who is behind
the creation: God, the artist, or a combination? Different audiences
will undoubtedly answer this differently, and therein lies the paradox:
theological works cannot merely be discussed by using secular theory.
Any book of a theological nature must recognize its bias, just as Barbara
Kingsolver's critics must deal with feminism and Toni Morrison's critics
must deal with race. The message be considered as with any work, but
the message's relationship with form cannot be ignored.
Early in his writings, Roland Barthes refers two kinds of writers,
"ecrivant" and "ecrivain." Ecrivant authors tend
to be most focused on their message and not the form in which they communicate:
due to the nature of theological persuasion, most Christian authors
fall (or pretend to fall) into that category. Ecrivain writers are more
likely to appreciate the aesthetics of literature and "write for
writing's sake." As Wazir Agha explains,
Ecrivant writers believe in the dividing line between form
and content and consider the relationship between the two as analogous
to the one between the 'envelop' and the matter that the envelope contains.
On the other hand, the ecrivain writers contend that the envelope and
the matter within the envelope are not two different things. The ecrivain
writers insist that the relationship between the container and the contained
does not apply here nor, for that matter, does the analogy of water
and the water-bag hold good. In other words the form and the content
are like a slab of ice and water. The slab does not contain water; it
is itself water.
Even if ecrivant authors do not believe that form has any relationship
to content because it is their message that is of importance, then puppet
master paradox is still not answered: even if form is not important,
the creators must play God unless basing a story completely off of "true"
events or assuming God is speaking directly through them. The paradox
is most highlighted when the audience's own beliefs as ecrivant or ecrivain
viewers are taken into consideration. Ecrivain viewers will likely have
a hard time accepting the problematic forms and elements of storytelling
found in some films that are immediately forgiven by ecrivant viewers
who prioritize (often at the exclusion of form) the message. As Stanley
Fish might suggest, ecrivant artists create for ecrivant audiences and
ecrivain artists create for ecrivain audiences. Yet, in order to act
as persuasive pieces and "convert the non-believers," the
ecrivant artists must address the ecrivain audiences. (This, of course,
is not to suggest that all ecrivain audiences are non-believers. A sympathetic
audience member may still find fault with the form. If Barthes is right
and there are two diametrically opposed groups of artists and their
fans, those factions need not relate to religious faith.) This polar
difference underlines most of the hatred harbored towards contemporary
Christian music: its detractors are not necessarily anti-Christian,
but have specific notions about what quality music entails in regards
to melody, instrumentation, innovation, and other elements of form.
As Erika Harris has said in What's Wrong With Christian Arts Today,
most Christian songs are remarkably missing something soulful.
It's like they've subtracted the influence of gospel and other 'black'
music from songs praising God. Instead we're left with a hollow feeling
that something's missing-the message is there, but it's impossible for
those outside Christianity to see past the blandness (64).
What typically happens then is that most Christian works are created
by ecrivant authors who fail to realize the puppet master paradox because
it relates to form.
Two recent films purporting to advance the Christian faith have brought
the puppet master paradox into clearer focus: The Omega Code
and Left Behind: The Movie. In attempt to remove the shadow of
the puppet master paradox, they use the Book of Revelations as a rough
plan, yet the two films deal with it in different ways: The Omega
Code uses it to create suspense, and Left Behind: The Movie
uses it to create a sense of inevitability. Yet a viewer always remains
aware that he or she is witnessing a movie, and thus the gut reaction
of the viewer is rooted in his or her tendency towards belief or skepticism.
The author of the artwork, like God, asks for faith in his or her characters,
settings, and situations: blind faith is sometimes demanded and called
"suspension of disbelief." Yet because of the problems with
form in many popular expressions of specifically Christian creativity,
that faith becomes so intertwined with the religious message that criticism
of the work is often seen as heresy. GimmeJesus, a self-described Christian
teen, said in the newsgroup alt.left-behind.rocks, "if u don't
like this movie u r 2 stupid 2 b saved!!!!!" The subtle propaganda
techniques become apparent: the doubt a viewer may have in the movie
becomes so intertwined with religion that some viewers may hesitate
to doubt the movie for fear of doubting their religion (this has been
called affective theory). An inverse relationship may also exist: skeptics
may suspect so much is false about the movie that they suspect the message
is false as well. As Alex Ventoux (Thad) states in Millennium,
"God doesn't move us by telling us the facts. He moves us by pains
and contradictions. He's given me a lack of understanding: not answers,
but questions. An invitation to marvel." "True believers"
can hypothetically accept any quality of movie as long as it advances
their faith by finding beauty in the problems, or the creators' failure
to live up to the God role, and, sometimes, it gives them a sense of
superiority that they can see beyond the failings of man to the glory
of God. Those who condemn such movies based entirely on technical concerns
as usually dismissed as "non-believers," "the fallen,"
or "pagans," and their ideas are rarely even investigated
for merit by those who fail to analyze more than just the message. No
movie has demonstrated this more than The Last Temptation of Christ,
panned by multitudes of people who never saw it or would, and praised
by several critics, who were then thus criticized themselves.
This obviously leads us to a large question: do we thus interpret
the Bible as Christian literature or fact? Were the authors of the Bible
puppet masters attempting at act as God, on behalf of God, or was the
Bible written by God? Do we embrace the Bible for its fantastic scenes
or pick apart its foibles? The Bible is so obviously intertwined with
religion that it is often overlooked as a work of fiction created by
man for man. Skeptics of the Bible are too often seen as skeptics of
God; the two ideas are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In the same
screed against those who criticize Left Behind: The Movie, GimmeJesus
shares his/her beliefs: "making fun of this movie is like making
fun of the bible: only satanists do it!!!!!" Similarly, those who
praise the Bible for its narrative and poetic beauty, its richness in
storytelling, may not necessarily be praising God. Depending on one's
belief, this puppet master paradox stills exists, yet the discrepancy
between the glory of God and the glory of man's creation is not usually
interpreted as vast, unlike in The Omega Code and Left Behind:
The Movie, or, as some believe, God wrote the Bible and thus no
puppet master paradox is exists.
Of course, the puppet master paradox calls more into question than mere
audience acceptance. There is always the question of who is pulling
the strings: is it a director, screenwriters, production studio, media
conglomerate, feisty cast, or God that is truly running the show? We
constantly walk on the thin line of misinterpretation (although whose
is correct and/or validated is an entirely different matter) when we
witness a puppet show, much less a puppet show performed by puppets.
It is not unlike the infamous "telephone" or "gossip"
game where messages become distorted with each repeating.
Thus the puppet master paradox has plenty to do with the interpreted
authenticity of the message, and also quite a bit to do with the author
himself or herself. The old debate about authorial intent creeps up
behind us, and we must take that into consideration. Is the author writing
to make money off an audience that seems to be able to stomach any number
of literary horrors in the name of faith? Is the author writing to preach
to others and "save" them? Is the author writing out of good
faith to ease people's suffering? Is the author writing to boast of
his or her own blessings? Depending on the critic's analysis, the puppet
game becomes more complicated. Can a "pure" message from God
come through an "impure" source, assuming we believe God sends
such messages? If the author posits that God sends messages to him or
her, is that an act of ego, faith, or marketing? Does this question
even matter to our understanding of the work? Of course, each person
will answer these questions in different ways, but they should at least
A severe problem facing Christian writings and addressed by several
critics is the danger that these newly created works replace the Bible
as "truth" since they are, at least temporarily, popular and
just as convincing. Some audience members of Left Behind: The Movie
are quite concerned, such as ThinkChrist2394:
What worries me is how many people are going to believe that this expression
of creativity is exactly what it says in the Bible? How many people
are going to check? Isn't putting out these fictionalized accounts of
the Bible maybe doing more harm? Is this film going to become the definitive
text. I'm sure it won't, but a part of me still worries that this film
may itself be the 'too-good-to-be-true' antichrist we were all warned
Thus, the author, as God, may replace the message of/from God, making
the author rise to a role not unlike an antichrist, spouting stories that
sway and lead others away from the Bible. Taking into consideration the
complicated interplay of authorial intent (or involvement) and the role
of God in the creative process will either lead us to answers or to more
Agha, Wazir. "The Main Concepts of Roland Barthes."
The News on Sunday. 22 Nov. 2000. Posted online at http://www.jang.com.pk/thenews/nov2000-weekly/nos-12-11-2000/lit.htm.
GimmeJesus. "will u b left behind? u will b if u
hate this movie." 7 Feb. 2001. Online posting. Newsgroup alt.left-behind.rocks.
Usenet. 7 Feb. 2001.
Harris, Erika. What's Wrong With Christian Arts Today.
Seattle: Back Alley P, 2000.
Millennium. Dir. Farley Furlong. Perf. Alan Thicke,
Sandra Bernhardt, and Alex Ventroux. KDX, 1996.
Left Behind: The Movie. Dir. Victor Sarin. Perf.
Kirk Cameron, Brad Johnson, and Chelsea Noble. Cloud Ten, 2000.
The Omega Code. Dir. Robert Marcarelli. Perf. Casper
Van Dien, Michael York, Catherine Oxenberg, and Michael Overstreet.
ThinkChrist2394. "Who do you trust?" 7 Feb.
2001. Online posting. Newsgroup alt.left-behind.rocks. Usenet. 7 Feb.