A conversation with Bryan Litfin
The conversation concludes, as theologian and author Bryan Litfin chats with Paradoxes about his forthcoming novel, The Sword (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), his spiritual odyssey, and the ways they may or may not have intersected. Sit down and join us.
PARADOXES: I couldn’t help but noticing the names of your protagonists—Teofil and Anastasia. Would that be from the Greek—Theophilos and Anastasias, ‘Lover of G-d’ and ‘Resurrection’?
BRYAN LITFIN: You’re exactly right. Lover of G-d, Resurrection. Anastasia’s name doesn’t factor in book one. Maybe there’s some factor in book two, I won’t go into that. That’s a teaser. Teofil, book one, yes, he becomes a Lover of G-d.
Many of the names have significance. It’ll just be a matter of saying, well, this one is this. Like, there’s a character named Maurice. Well, St. Maurice is a major figure in the history of Swiss church in the ancient period. And St. Maurice today is this ritzy ski town.
So the names have meaning. Many of the names have very significant meaning. In this case, Teo, or Theophilos, becomes a Lover of G-d. Really the first book, it’s his story. The second book is Ana’s story. But in the first book, he has the through line, he has the arc, he has the change, the events of the story that change him the most.
Ana is much more static. There are some significant changes in terms of her spirituality, but she’s righteous in the beginning, and she just learns what it means to follow the True G-d and be righteous in that way in the end. So she is more static in terms of her holiness and her purity, in terms of her characters. And my editor, Erin Healy, told me, she said, ‘You need to scuff her up a little bit.’ And I tried. It wasn’t right, it wasn’t about her, this wasn’t her story. And so the most I could do was have her come to the end of her rope. But I couldn’t really have her crossing any moral travesty lines. It just didn’t work for her to be that way.
Teo does have more of that moral arc, that spiritual arc. And so this story is his story, and through it, by the end he becomes a Lover of G-d. Although, you know, they don’t know everything by the end of this book either. But he does know G-d.
If the first book is Teo’s book, and the second book is Ana’s book, then whose book is the third?
Well, I’m still thinking through that, but I think it’s the church’s book. I’m still thinking through—is it going to return to Teo? I’d thought of that. Is it going to be both of them? But I think it’s broader than that. I think it’s going to be the church’s book. One of the macro-themes of this trilogy is going to be something like the re-evangelization of Europe. I don’t have the third book plotted out well enough yet, or I don’t have all those things in my head straight enough to make much of a comment on that.
But I’ve written the second book now, at least a rough draft, and definitely this is Ana’s story. She’s the—the pivotal figure. Although Teo is such a strong figure that he’s going to have factor in very prominently as well. The two of them really drive the story.
Teo and Ana are these two characters that somehow got birthed under my fingers as I typed, and took on a life of their own—a kind of chemistry, a kind of magnetism. Their interlocking stories drive the plot forward. In that sense it is a romance. It’s not a typical romance. There’s no kissing in The Sword. There’s lots of sexuality, there’s no kissing. At least, what I mean is there’s not the characters having this great romantic moment, and scenes of expressing passionate love. But there’s a deep kind of love between them.
It’s not acknowledged, at least in the first book.
Is the chronology of the trilogy continuous, like Lord of the Rings, where it’s a single story broken over three books, or is it going to be more like Star Wars, where there’s a gap of unspecified time between?
No, it continues. You can take the second one and attach it to the back of the first one and just pick it up right there. And I think the same will be true in the third.
In one sense, as a trilogy it’s a continuous story. In another sense, there is at the end of The Sword a significant resolution to the plot question and the narrative. So, there’s definite narrative that gets its resolution. But it’s an open-ended resolution with more to come, more dramas to be had in other ways.
The volumes do stand alone very strongly. And that will be partly due to location changes that happen in respect to the stories. The second and the third will involve location shifts that signal a move into new territory.
Circling back around to the theology and fantasy question. I want to stand that on its head and ask how has the writing of fiction informed your understanding of theology?
I don’t know if it’s a question that the story affected my theology, as much as the story is born out of the theology I had already reflected on, and come to, and arrived at. Has it changed me? I’m not sure I’d say the story itself has changed me, but the process of trying to get published has definitely changed me. That was more of a spiritual odyssey than probably the plot itself.
The plot itself reflects an odyssey, or a theological stance, that I already had, and was coming out of that. And what I mean by that is things I’ve already said, like man must bow the knee before G-d. Or that G-d is the One True G-d. Or that G-d is a G-d who takes seemingly impossible things and raises up a purpose when his time is ready. That G-d cannot be manipulated by man. That G-d [forgives] and offers grace when that is needed. That G-d uses other people to do these things. And that G-d uses, in the life of a man often times, a woman to be his instrument in changing a man. These are things I’d already seen in my own life, and marriage even.
The spiritual odyssey for me, that maybe made any change on me, was this process, which you can I know identify with, going from a guy without a book contract to a guy with a book contract. And just trusting and believing when it doesn’t seem optimistic or something like that, and giving thanks when something does happen. And learning then to see that it was G-d who did it and not take any kind of credit for it.
There’s a lot of people out there, I know, who would love to publish a novel. Very few actually get to do it. I feel very humbled that G-d has given me that chance, and humbled that Crossway would roll the dice on an unknown. Which is what I am. I haven’t proven anything and still haven’t. Other than that I can do academic stuff.
And that would have been the no brainer. I know I could have gotten more book contracts in the academic world. But this was sort of a limb. And then all those issues I talked about before about—Oh wait, Bryan Litfin is a scholar, Bryan Litfin publishes ancient church, Bryan Litfin didn’t go to [the University of] Virginia so he could write fantasy books. You know? So there’s that whole wrestling with identity—following passion, or following identity, or what?
Speaking to you both as the academic and as the author, you’ve experienced Story within not just an academic theology, but very much a vibrant, lived theology. How do you see these two things coming together into a single expression? What is the role of fantasy, the role of Story, in a life of faith and Christian spirituality?
I’m a great believer in the sense of theology as a kind of narrative. Some of my doctoral work dealt with some issues related to that, with respect to the Christian faith being—I don’t want to call it a theodrama or something, and be Vanhoozer here. But there is a sense in which what Christianity centres on—and this is a unique thing, due to the incarnation—are deeds done in the world. Mighty deeds by Christ—creation, prediction, incarnation, resurrection, consummation—this great sweeping arc.
What Christians are then, as united to Christ, are actors in a great drama that G-d is working out. Christianity involves actors coming on stage and joining a certain play—this play and not that play, because there are plenty of other plays that are offered out there. When you come to faith and are baptized into the Christian faith, you are in fact entering into this drama, and not that one—this G-d and his story, Israel’s G-d, and the G-d the Father of Jesus Christ, indwelt by the Spirit in the church. The great sweep of Christianity centres on deeds done in the world. And that’s where narrative, other kinds of narrative, can really bring that out.
In The Sword, and in this trilogy, Chiveis Trilogy, I really try to bring out biblical narrative points, and flesh them out in more details. The villain, for example, is the female head of a pagan religion. She’s called the High Priestess. Well, she’s very much like Jezebel. There’s this strong Canaanite religion going with her, and the culmination is modelled after Elijah and the Prophets of Baal. That’s a way, just as an example, where you take biblical narrative and bring it alive, or re-spin it, or retell the story of Elijah and the Prophets of Baal through the lens of this future kingdom. You’re taking biblical narrative, and making it come alive.
Well, thank you, Bryan. Thank you very much.
Thank you, John. I appreciate you giving me so much play on your blog.
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And you can preorder a copy of The Sword here.