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Friday, August 05, 2005

Travel hiatus coming

Our daughters (and their husbands) are staking us to most of a retirement trip to various parts of Western North America. We expect to be gone for about a month, God willing. I don't plan to post during this trip. I didn't do so during our last one. I expect to check (and maybe even answer some) e-mail, and occasionally check my blog subscriptions, perhaps including yours, if you have a blog.

Those who may check this blog after early September will probably see, not necessarily in that order, a response to Bonnie's comment on this post. I also hope to post on a book by Patricia A. McKillip, and expect to post a few pictures from our trip. I have in mind a few suggestions for changing basketball rules.

I plan to take along, and read: some of the Hyperion quartet by Dan Simmons; a book on British poet John Keats, who is almost a major character in the Hyperion books; Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis; The Case for a Creator by Strobel, a graduation gift (to me!) from a student; The Biblical Jubilee and the Struggle for Life by Kinsler and Kinsler; The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life, by Smith, and my Bible.

Thanks for reading.

Sunspots 20

Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:

Anyone interested in Christian fiction, by and about African-Americans, should probably check Christian Fiction, a blog by two (although I've only seen posts by one of them) African-American writers, and (sometimes) about such fiction.

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From Harper's, a panel discussion on the state of the US economy, which, among other things, affects overseas missions, as US funds don't go nearly as far as they used to in many other countries. (The article doesn't mention that, but other aspects of the situation.) I was amazed to read that the panelists seemed to agree that something like Bush's private retirement savings accounts would be a good thing, although they were against paying for it by borrowing extensively.

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I continue to use Bloglines for my RSS feeds, and it seems to work just fine for that. However, using it for searches within blogs is another matter. I subscribe to several searches, and occasionally use some of those keywords in my own posts. (Google does search within blogs--I use alerts--but it doesn't do a terrific job of that. Bloglines used to.) Bloglines isn't returning any of my own uses. It is returning some hits from other blogs, though. How many searchers would profit from my posts? How many posts I would profit from aren't being returned? I don't know.

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Quote from an editorial in Christianity Today: All science is ultimately a matter of trust. The tools, methods, and mathematical skills scientists acquire over years of training are beyond the reach of the rest of us, even of scientists in different fields. Thanks to the creation-evolution debate, mistrust between scientists and conservative Christians runs deep. But those scarred by battles with evolutionists might still consider heeding the scientists who are warning us about climate change. As an evangelical scientist said to me recently, the debate over climate change is very much like Pascal's wager, that famous argument for belief in God.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

E=mc squared by David Bodanis

I'd like to thank one of our daughters, who urged me to purchase a used copy of this book at one of the bookstores in Stratford, ON. I'm glad she did.

David Bodanis begins E=mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation (New York: Berkley Books, 2000) with a story that Cameron Diaz, the movie actress, was once asked, in an interview, if there was anything that she, Diaz, wanted to know. She supposedly replied that she would like to understand Einstein's famous equation. Perhaps she read this book. It doesn't impart complete understanding of the equation, but it helps.

Bodanis' book is about the history of science. He introduces a number of ideas, and some of the characters who were important in developing those ideas. He has written things about E, m, c, and 2 that I didn't know before I read the book, and about scientists that I had not heard of.

Here he is on the velocity of light:

[Einstein's] new realization about light changed everything; for the speed of light becomes the fundamental speed limit in our universe: nothing can go faster. . . . light isn't just a number, it is a physical process. There's a big difference. If I say that -273 . . . is the lowest number that there is, you could rightly answer that I'm wrong: that -274 is lower, and -275 is lower yet, and that you can keep on going forever. But suppose we are dealing with temperatures. The temperature of a substance is a readout of how much its inner parts are moving, and at some point they're going to stop vibrating entirely. That happens at about -273 degrees on the centigrade scale, and that's why -273 degrees is said to be "absolute zero" when you're talking about temperature. Pure numbers might be able to go lower, but physical things can't: a coin or a snowmobile or a mountain can't vibrate any less than not vibrating at all.

So it is with light. The 670,000,000 mph figure that Roemer measured for the light speeding down from Jupiter is a statement about what that light is like. It's a physical "thing." (p. 50)

I've been studying, and teaching, science for about a half century, and I had never thought to put it that way before.

Bodanis explains that celeritas, a Latin word meaning "swiftness," is the origin of the use of c for the velocity of light.

He told me some things about women scientists that I wish I had known before. One such woman was Emilie du Châtelet, who added to Newtonian physics the idea that there is such a thing as energy, which exists in many forms, one of them being kinetic energy (the energy an object possesses due to its motion) which, she found, is proportional to the mass of the moving object times its velocity squared. du Châtelet died in childbirth at 40. He also writes about Lise Meitner, who worked out the details of fission, and Cecelia Payne, who made fundamental discoveries about the composition of stars, but was not given a position at Harvard for many years, because of her sex. (Meitner now has an element named after her, so her achievement is recognized, but she was treated shamefully during her lifetime, by a co-worker.) Bodanis also writes about male scientists, lest there be any doubt.

Bodanis covers some interesting history. There are conflicting opinions about the role of Werner Heisenberg in the unsuccesful German atomic bomb program. Bodanis believes that he wanted to succeed, but was thwarted by allied sabotage. He also blames James F. Byrnes, a South Carolinian who advised Truman, for the fission bombing of Japan, when Japan was already close to surrender. There are alternative views on these opinions. He writes that Einstein's famous letter to President Roosevelt, urging US development of the bomb, was ignored. He credits Oppenheimer for his superb administration of the US atomic bomb program.

Most scientifically literate people understand that Einstein's famous equation is a by-product of his special theory of relativity, which is not principally about the equivalence of matter and energy, but about relative motion. I suspect that, like me, they might learn a great deal more about these matters, and other things, from Bodanis' book.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Sunspots 19

Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:

If you use G-Mail, it may not be as private as you think it is, and the reason isn't because of Google--it has to do with RSS feeds. See here for a warning and a solution.

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Written before the Internet, or blogging, but still relevant, perhaps:

"But why do only unimportant things?" asked Milo, who suddenly remembered how much time he spent each day doing them. "Think of all the trouble it saves," the man explained . . . "If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you'll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won't have the the time. For there's always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing . . . ." Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth, p. 213. (New York: Random House, 1996, Special 35th Anniversary Edition)

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A post on whether Snape is really evil or not, and a long web page by John Granger on Rowling's Half-Blood Prince release interviews.

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I have finally placed a Flickr photo badge on my blog (scroll down). You can't see it if you are going to a particular post, just from the main blog. Thumbnail pictures, from my photos, randomly appear and disappear. Thanks, Brandy!

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Joe Carter's post on the improbability of life having risen by chance, and the extensive discussion, generally well-mannered and thoughtful, following it, make for some thought-provoking reading.

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The latest Christian Carnival is here. Be prepared to see a brown background!

What must be Christian about a Christian Novel?

There are, I am sure, many others who have written on this topic. I am aware of a few of them. Over a year ago, Jared wrote "Drawing Lines in the Matter of Christian Content," which is as good as anything I have read on the subject. He wrote:
So Dostoyevsky, not really a "Christian author," would be too Christian for the mainstream. [C. S.] Lewis, most certainly a Christian author, would be too edgy for the Christian publishers.

This is precisely the predicament many aspiring Christian writers find themsevles [sic] in these days. They often find their works caught in some literary limbo. Mainstream publishers don't want them because they are too obviously Christian, and Christian publishers don't want them because they deal honestly and authentically with the stuff of the world.
Jared mentions, as examples of edginess in the writing of C. S. Lewis, some of Uncle Andrew's language in The Magician's Nephew, Mr. Beaver's beer-drinking and pipe-smoking in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and some sexual references in That Hideous Strength. (He could have mentioned that Lewis, himself, smoked a pipe, drank alcoholic beverages, and married a divorced woman.) The entire post, which isn't very long, is required reading on this topic.

In an earlier post, I have listed three aspects of a novel that aren't necessary, in my opinion, to make it Christian. I also list four criteria that Angela Hunt suggests are necessary for faith fiction, which is a sub-category of Christian fiction, but, unfortunately, one that is often assumed to be all of Christian fiction. It isn't. Dee, herself an author of Christian fiction, was kind enough to comment on my post. She has a blog, which will, like Hunt's and Jared's, give you more opinions on the subject of my title.

I am not an expert in the writing, or even the reviewing, of Christian fiction. Let me get back to my own musing. Hunt, who is an expert, in that she is a much-published author of Christian fiction, in a different post, says: "As a book without plot and characters can hardly be called a novel, a novel without plot, characters, and some element of Christianity can hardly be called a Christian novel, right?" As I said in my previous post on this subject, I agree. Let me muse about some elements of Christianity that might be found in novels, especially novels in fantastic fiction. To me, to be a Christian element, it should be reasonably clear that the element was put it deliberately--the reader isn't finding something that the author didn't intend that way.

1) A Christ-figure. Aslan, from C. S. Lewis's Narnia books, is an obvious example. The Lion is a character who willingly offers his life for the guilt of another, in an effective sacrifice, and returns to life. It seems to me that a character can be a Christ-figure without doing all that. Gandalf, in Tolkien's trilogy, died to protect the rest of the Fellowship, and was resurrected. I would list him as a Christ-figure, even though he didn't die for the guilt of another. Willingly offering her life to protect others, by a good character, would often be enough to make one a Christ-figure for me, at least in fiction.

Unselfish giving, of resources, or of the self, for example in giving care to others, could make a character a Christ-figure.

2) Belief in important orthodox Christian doctrine, on the part of a narrator or character, would be a Christian element. Although they have a distorted view of it, the Underpeople in Cordwainer Smith's books believe in a Trinity, so that (and other things) would lead me to consider his works as Christian novels.

3) Practicing monotheistic prayer to a divine being. The attempts to seek guidance, usually accompanied by animal sacrifices, in Gene Wolfe's Long Sun books are Christian elements, in my opinion. Zenna Henderson's books on the People have this element, without the sacrifices.

Tolkien's work is missing some interesting things. There is little or no worship of a creator, or prayer or religious ceremony of any kind, in the trilogy or The Hobbit. Many writers of fantastic literature have included worship, of some being or beings, in their books, which is not surprising, since worship is an important part of human life.

Jack Vance frequently has some type of religious practice in his novels. All such practice in them is farcical, or obviously evil, or both. I appreciate his fiction, but find no Christian elements in it.

Just having worship or prayer doesn't make something Christian. The sacrifice of a rational creature as part of such a prayer would make such a prayer a non-Christian element. Juliet Marillier has stated that she has tried to create a Pictish, and non-Christian religion in at least some of her work. Ursula K. Le Guin has similarly stated that some of her works are Taoist. I find Le Guin, especially, well worth reading, and I'm certainly not alone in that, but her work, to my mind, nor, I think, to hers, can be called Christian.

*(This paragraph was added, on the same day, several hours after the original post. The rest of the post remains as it was) Le Guin hasn't restricted herself to Taoism. Much of her The Tombs of Atuan depends on what, for want of a better name, I shall call a pagan religion--worship of powerful, but localized spirits. These spirits are represented as real, even to persons, like Ged, who don't worship them. The religion is one of ritual and fear. There is no love or goodness, just power and jealousy. The same book has another religion, worship of the god-brothers, which isn't as well described. C. S. Lewis, often considered one of the most important Christian writers of the previous century, constructed a pagan religion with a description, like that of Le Guin's, that seems authentic in Till We Have Faces. I suppose that he was, in part, illustrating his belief that other religions (the setting is pre-Christian, in or near what is now Greece) may point their sincere adherents toward Christianity. As he said, "If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through." Mere Christianity: What One Must Believe to Be a Christian. New York: Macmillan, 1952. p. 30. Or, in fiction, it is illustrated by the experience of a Calormene on meeting Aslan:
But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of Thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou has done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then . . . I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook . . . and said, it is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done for him, for he and I are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him.
. . .The Last Battle, New York: Macmillan, 1956, pp. 156-157.
4) Expressing a relationship with the God of Christianity as Lord would certainly be a Christian element. I can't think of any examples in fantastic fiction. There are plenty in faith fiction.

5) A consciousness of supernatural guidance, or divine providence, benevolent in character, strikes me as a Christian element. This occurs in Tolkien, in, for example, the Council of Elrond, where Elrond remarks that those attending are not there by chance.

6) An explicit rejection of evil personified, or a decision to turn away from evil acts by a character, is a Christian element. Patricia McKillip's characters often decide not to take personal vengeance, for example. Bilbo's decision not to kill Gollum is a Christian element. Perhaps even the realization of one's own evil nature, and a desire to change, should be considered a Christian element. Attempting to live righteously would also be a Christian element.

It seems to me that a novel which meets Hunt's other three criteria, and includes one of the first four elements above in a non-trivial way, would necessarily be legitimate faith fiction, because it would "illustrate some aspect of Christian faith." A novel could have the fifth, or sixth, or both, and not really do so.

I don't know how comfortable most readers or publishers of faith fiction would be with fantastic faith fiction, or fantastic Christian fiction. As Jared said, they might find it "too edgy." Maybe not. The only recent example of an attempt to write fantastic faith fiction that I can think of is Stephen R. Lawhead**.

There are, no doubt, other Christian elements, that could legitimately cause a novel to be labeled Christian. If you think of any, please comment.

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**Addition, August 28, 2006: I have discovered that there is a lot more of what I called "fantastic faith fiction" than I thought there was. There is at least one blog, Speculative Faith, devoted exclusively to the subject. (That blog mentions three other blogs on the subject in a sidebar. I'm familiar with one of them, Claw of the Conciliator, which frequently, but not always, writes about "Christian Speculative Fiction.") One post from Speculative Faith defines such literature. The blog has a sidebar list of 25 authors, including Lawhead.

Addition, April 5, 2007: A newer, related post is "Christian aspects of fantastic literature." I have also mused about "Christian themes in Patricia A. McKillip's Riddle-Master Trilogy."

Edited slightly, March 13, 2007.

Thanks for reading.

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June 14, 2007:
Here's my post on the question of whether Elizabeth Moon's trilogy, The Deed of Paksenarrion, consists of Christian novels.

August 19, 2007:
Here's my post on Moon's Surrender None, which includes a Christ-figure who dies to keep others from doing wrong.

September 14, 2007:
Here's my post on whether the Harry Potter books are Christian novels.

November 22, 2007: In a shameless attempt to pick up more Google search hits, I am adding these terms: novel, book, aspects, characteristics, attributes, properties, Christian, literature, religion, fantasy, science fiction, story, atonement.

October 2, 2008:
Here's my post on the question of whether Lois McMaster Bujold's The Curse of Chalion is a Christian novel.

October 31, 2008:
Here's my post on Sherri S. Tepper's Grass. The book, and the post, include religious aspects as a major feature.

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On April 2, 2009, E Stephen Burnett wrote an essay, asking questions about how far a Christian author could go in writing fiction which has a God who is significantly different from the Christian God, and whether a Christian could legitimately create a fictional character who is in defiance of God. I posted tentative answers to these questions, which are related to the subject of the post above, on April 13, 2009.

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On August 7th, 2009, I considered the question of whether the Sharing Knife novels, by Lois McMaster Bujold, are Christian, using the items above in my analysis. I concluded that they are not. However, as I indicated in that post, Bujold does have a character who is a Christian in one of her other books, in the Miles Vorkosigan series. In this post, I note that I personally found illustrations of matters central to Christianity in the Sharing Knife books, whether or not Bujold meant for them to be found there.

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On August 18th, 2009, I considered the question of whether The Spirit Ring, also by Bujold, is a Christian novel, and concluded that it was. Bujold is an important writer, the only one who has won Hugo, Nebula, and Mythopoeic Awards for her fiction.

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Added February 8, 2011. I have condensed my thoughts on this topic, and changed my views a little, since this was originally posted. See here for the update. 

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Added February 7th, 2012: Rachelle Gardner, a literary agent, apparently one who serves authors of Faith Fiction, argues that "Christian Fiction" should be so labeled, as part of honesty in marketing. Mike Duran, who uses Gardner as his agent, begs to differ. There are many comments on both posts.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

When Did I Begin?

Catez, at AllThings2All, posted one of her usual thoughtful posts, on whether birth control pills are abortifacient. There have been several comments, including some by me, and she has been kind enough to comment back on the comments.

My comments were quotes (with a little explanation) from Norman M. Ford's When did I begin? Conception of the human individual in history, philosophy and science (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988), the most thorough book on this question that I have been privileged to read. I am not, of course, certain that he is correct, but he at least deserves a reading. Ford is apparently a Catholic believer, with expertise in embryology, and also with knowledge of theology and philosophy. I'm going to repeat the quotes that I used in my comments here, in my own blog:

A human person cannot exist before the formation of a distinct living ontological individual with a truly human nature that retains the same ontological identity throughout successive stages of development. (xvi) (See the Wikipedia article on Ontology, if you need to.)

It should not be assumed that a genetically unique human zygote is the same ontological individual as the resulting blastocyst, definitive embryo proper, fetus and child, notwithstanding the continuity of the same biological identity at every stage of development. Human twins that are genetically identical are neverthless different ontological individuals. Furthermore, analysis of the evidence shows that early embryonic cells inside the zona pellucida lack the requisite unity to constitute a single ontological entity. Each is totipotent. They appear to have too much independence of behavior to constitute one individual. This alone would preclude them from being a human individual until the multiplying cells formed themselves into a single multicellular human body. Furthermore, experiments with mice show how single cells taken from three separate early mouse embryos can be aggregated to form a single viable chimaeric mouse embryo. In this case the resultant individual mouse certainly did not begin at the zygote stage. This suggests that perhaps in the normal situation the proliferating and developing cells amalgamate at a later stage to form the definitive individual body, be it that of a mouse or a human individual. (xvii)

With the appearance of the primitive streak after the completion of implantation and about 14 days after fertilization identical twinning can no longer occur. This is when the human body is first formed with a definite body plan and definitive axis of symmetry. Prior to this stage it would seem to be quite unreal to speak of the presence of a distinct human individual. This suggests that before this time genetically human embryonic cells could not develop into a human individual with a true human nature and a continuing ontological identity. If I am right, the early embryonic cells could not constitute an actual human individual. Instead they would have the potency to form one or more human individuals. It seems that the biological evidence leads to the philosophical conclusion that a human individual, our youngest neighbor and member of the human community, begins at the primitive streak stage and not prior to it, but most certainly by the stage of gastrulation when the human embryo's primitive cardiovascular system is already functioning and blood is circulating. (xviii)

In giving her moral teachings, which I personally accept, the Church generally refers to the zygote or the product of fertilization as a human being, a human subject with rights and even a human person but without intending to commit herself to a statement of philosophical character. In other words, the Church has gone as far as she possibly could without expressly declaring that the zygote is a human individual in the philosophical sense of a human being or human person, personally identical with the fetus, future infant, child and adult. Consequently though different stages of development of the human individual are recognized, the Church places them all on the one ethical level. . . . (p. 62) Ford is saying, here, that the Catholic Church's well-known opposition to abortion, at any stage of development, is on ethical grounds, not on the grounds that a zygote or very early embryo is philosophically equal to a baby or adult.

There's a lot more thought-provoking material in the book, but I don't think it's ethical for me to quote any more of it here.

Ford's answer to the question posed by his book's title, and that of this post, would be, "no earlier than about 14 days of development."

Monday, August 01, 2005

Angela Hunt on Christian Novels

Angela Hunt, the author of quite a few books, (as Angela Elwell Hunt--she blogs as Angela Hunt) wrote a post entitled "What Makes a Novel Christian." Hunt used a longish quotation from G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy, and wrote that:
As a book without plot and characters can hardly be called a novel, a novel without plot, characters, and some element of Christianity can hardly be called a Christian novel, right?
I agree. Some element of Christianity should be present. Since she suggests that Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany (detailed Barnes & Noble SparkNotes analysis of the book) might be considered a Christian novel, Hunt is apparently open to a relatively broad range of what an "element of Christianity" might be.

An anonymous commenter appears to be considerably less broad-minded:
. . . a Christian novel cannot be Christian if there are no Christian principles invoked and hold the Christian theme throughout the entire book.
If I were to pick up a book that was "supposed" to be Christian fiction, and, after reading, I found the Christian principles not implemented, I would NO LONGER read that particular author. There is a certain standard that Christian novels must maintain.
Hunt goes on to write that what a writer writes is necessarily colored by her worldview. (My wife wisely observed that the same is true of what a reader reads--it is likely that Christians often find Christian elements that were not intended by the authors, in novels they read.)
I appreciate Hunt's post, and would like to consider what makes a novel Christian in a post or two.
Let me start by suggesting some standards that novels shouldn't have to meet in order to be Christian, pointing out Biblical true stories that indicate that that standard is not required of Christian stories:
1) Main characters don't have to be, or become, Christian, or followers of God. (Examples: Jezebel, Cain)
2) Plots don't have to include an earthly reward for the just. Bad things happen to good people. They even die. (Example: John the Baptist)
3) Sexual relationships don't have to be only between a man and a woman who are married to each other. (Example: David) A Christian novel, in Hunt's sense, could involve other moral transgressions, such as thievery, lying, gossip, taking God's name in vain, or idol worship.
A Christian, probably including Hunt's anonymous commenter, might, of course, decide that she preferred not to read novels where the characters aren't Christian at the end, or have bad things happen to them, or engage in sexual or other sins.
Hunt has introduced a useful term (perhaps it's not original with her) in another post. That term is "faith fiction." (I'm not a frequent reader of faith fiction, hence certainly no expert in it.) Faith fiction, then, is a sub-category of Christian novels. She writes that faith fiction should have four characteristics:
1) it "should illustrate some aspect of Christian faith."
2) it should avoid the use of profanity or obscenity.
3) it should be an example of good writing.
4) it should offer hope.
I expect that the commenter quoted above wants to read faith fiction, but not other types of Christian fiction.
You may be surprised, as I was, but Hunt, who should know, says that faith fiction, to be publishable and readable, does not necessarily have to include a conversion scene, nor other aspects that some of us non-readers of such fiction might expect. She says it just has to meet the criteria above.
I was surprised to note that her second criterion did not mention the third of the Ten Commandments. Perhaps she is including it as profanity, but taking God's name in vain isn't the same as profanity to me. Nor am I clear on why avoiding profanity or obscenity is more important to publishers and readers of faith fiction than, say, not mentioning stealing or adultery.
Other than my questions about the second of them, her criteria seem quite reasonable for faith fiction. Christian fiction, as she described it, doesn't have to meet the same criteria. Some element of Christianity must be present, as she says, but the four criteria for the faith fiction category don't have to be met.
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I subsequently have attempted to answer the question, "What must be Christian about a Christian novel?"