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Postmodern Village
est. 1999
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The Puppet Master Paradox in Christian Fiction
(Christian Theory: Left Behind?)

by Mittens DuBois-Dugan

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 be asked.

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 about.
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 questions.

Works Cited

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. TBN, 1999.

ThinkChrist2394. "Who do you trust?" 7 Feb. 2001. Online posting. Newsgroup alt.left-behind.rocks. Usenet. 7 Feb. 2001.