Monday, August 7, 2017

Why We (mostly) Don't Like Retold Bible Stories

Last time we were open to submissions, we received quite a few retold (or re-interpreted) Bible stories, and didn't accept any of them. Why not?

While we're not necessarily averse to publishing these kinds of stories, we find that they mostly fall into three main types, each of which is irritating in its own special way.

Type 1 stories posit that whatever really happened is completely different from what most devout Christians have believed through the ages. God wanted Adam and Eve to eat the fruit and be thrown out of Eden. Jesus wasn't God incarnate, but a human sorcerer (or alien, or time traveler, or...). There's no such thing as miracles; here's a totally rationalist explanation for the plagues in Exodus, or the feeding of the five thousand, or the Resurrection (these probably don't even qualify as speculative fiction).

Type 2 stories go too far in the opposite direction, when careful Christian authors are so afraid that it would be heretical or even blasphemous to change anything in Scripture that they end up with basically a scene-by-scene retelling, sometimes with Jesus's dialogue lifted straight out of a popular Bible translation (usually either the King James or NIV). At that point, why should we even read your story? Why not just read the Bible? Even if you're expanding on the original material--filling in dialogue and adding characters--if you don't provide something that either deepens our understanding of the story, or pushes us to look at it in a new way, what's the point?

Our problem with both types is that the story itself is too often subservient to whatever point the author is trying to make about Christianity, and that doesn't usually lead to fiction that either of us wants to read (whether or not we agree with the point being made).

Type 3 stories are those set in the modern day, or in another historical period different from the original setting, or in a different culture. The main problem with these stories is that--like modern settings of Shakespearean plays--they're so overdone. It's usually pretty easy, for Bible geeks like us, to figure out which story it is, and from that point on there are rarely any surprises.

Type 3 stories often fall into Type 2 errors at the same time, which can be as jarring as watching characters in 1980s Manhattan speak Elizabethan English. We once watched a short film retelling of Jesus's encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. The filmmakers were obviously going for an "edgy" modern version, set in the present day and starting with the woman's backstory before she meets Jesus. She has a fight with her abusive boyfriend, runs off to be alone at her special place in the woods ... and meets a guy in a white shirt whose face is never shown but who is surrounded by a nimbus of light. From that point on, the two characters just recite, word-for-word, the dialogue recorded in John 4. Never mind that the dialogue doesn't make any sense transposed to 21st century Massachusetts, or that it didn't address what the first scene had set up. We understand and respect that some Christians don't feel comfortable changing any of the details recorded in Scripture, even in fiction ... but if that's you, you should probably avoid Bible retellings if you hope to sell us a story.

Are there any Bible retellings we'd be interested in? Yes, definitely. There were a few that we seriously considered for the first Mysterion anthology, even though they didn't quite make it. You are probably better off telling Bible-adjacent stories, not least because you're less likely to be rehashing material that's been done and done to death. Your protagonist might be a minor character from a Biblical narrative, or an event that appears in the Bible might be part of your story but not the main plot. You might tell the story of a different stage of a character's life, before or after events described in Scripture. We don't actually have a problem with re-imagining, rephrasing, or rearranging Biblical content, or with stories in which certain events or perspectives recorded in the Bible aren't true. We're publishing fiction, not Bible commentaries. But we do have a problem with unoriginal stories.

In terms of content, there are lines we won't cross, but we're hesitant to say what they are, since some of the most interesting stories come close to the edge and we don't want authors to self-reject. Don't be afraid to try us with a story you're not sure about! The worst that can happen is that we'll say no.

So send us your Bible retellings (once we re-open to submissions)--but keep in mind that we do get a lot of them, so competition is fierce. And show us something we haven't seen before.

Our Kickstarter for Mysterion 2 has only 11 days left to go. We're now 36% funded with 56 backers. If you like what you've read here about the kinds of stories we're interested in, please consider making a pledge!


3 comments:

  1. It seems like for 95% of the Bible-adjacent stories I've read, the main character is either Pontius Pilate, Barrabas or Cain. There are lots of other interesting characters to write about besides those guys.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yeah, there are even a few women! :)

    ReplyDelete
  3. The criteria for publishing stories is really fascinating. As usual I enjoy your commentary and being shown a different perspective.

    ReplyDelete

Comments are moderated. While we don't expect people to always agree with one another, we do expect commenters to be civil and avoid name-calling. We will not allow posts which do not follow this rule.