A trope is a building block of fiction. It’s a characterization, plot hook, audience observation, or other thing that can be quantified. It’s not a cliche, but a trope can be a cliche of overused. TV Tropes is a great place to find out what many of them are. Christian fiction also has its tropes. One would be the “altar call,” in which the main character is faced with a come to Jesus moment as a climax in the book.
Unfortunately not all tropes are good. Spiritual Warfare Novels in particular have some really bad ones. Here’s a list of the five worst with some explanation why.
1. The Killer in Black.
In many books, you have the same sort of unfortunate fellow.
-He is possessed/heavily influenced by the devil.
-He dresses all in black, or gothy, or in some other menacing fashion.
-He’s there mostly to provide drama by killing people.
-He is often the “go to hell, do not pass Go, do not collect $200″ guy. This means that he’s the one fellow in the book you know is going to be killed, and when he is killed, he is going to get fire applied to his body. Sometimes he has a buddy who gets to be the good bad guy and is redeemed.
This is troublesome.
It’s a cheap way out to have tension and make a villain capable of threatening the heroes in a tangible way. It can also be troublesome because it fulfills our desire for a pure, 100% bad villain. The fact that the guy might be mentally ill and vulnerable to this, or genuinely unable to control himself, or might not be influenced at all (and be closer to us than we’d like) tends to get swept under the carpet, as well as the fact that throughout Christian history, even murderers have repented and tried to make amends for what they have done. It can make spiritual warfare a little too Manichean for comfort by making some people obviously beyond the pale.
It’s worse if the person has no legitimate chance or is railroaded into this. As well as if it’s due to the second item on this list…
2. Magic items corrupt you!
Books about the New Age, Buddhism, the Koran, or other mystical texts are not the Necronomicon.
Crystal dragons are pretty little sculptures to hold down paper.
Many times in spiritual warfare fiction, certain things will have the ability to magically open you up to demonic powers by their sheer presence. It’s not a case of a person causing problems by embracing a belief system and performing meditation or rituals that can open a person up to problems. This exists for anyone, even Christian monks; for non-western belief systems, it’s described well as “India Syndrome” in this Details Article. Christian monks often deal with something called Acedia-sloth, the noonday demon. The act of being a monk or mystic seems to intensify spiritual issues and make many of them more fragile, not more robust. This is why mysticism is so dangerous; the practice of repetitive rituals in order to beat down the natural spiritual defenses can cause a host of physical and mental problems. Maybe even possession, but I don’t know.
But this trope is just simply having a cursed object or casually reading it, and bam! Demon central. It’s closer to a totemic way of thinking, and never really appears in Christianity. It can cause a lot of fear. You know what really happens when you open up a New Age book?
You get struck by how banal it is.
No, really; a lot of works by New Age authors are just, well bad. Christians give them powers they simply don’t have. A lot of it is bad legend, or banal self-help platitudes, or a worldview that is a hodgepodge of different myths with little historical or internal consistency.
Needless to mention I’m not saying pull out the old Ouija board and have a party. But if you break out the D&D books and roleplay, it isn’t going to turn you into some Lovecraftian beastie.
3. Angels are big dudes with wings. Demons are mooks in a First Person Shooter game.
Essentially, we have the spiritual fiction equivalent of Halo: Combat Evolved. If you read the Bible, the one thing that is striking about angels is that people’s senses literally break down when they try to perceive them in their native forms. You have all these wild symbolic mishmashes; wheels of fire, wings with eyes on them, multiple faces, and the like. Many times angels are simply described as being a man. Demons I don’t think are ever described at all, and appear in the Bible as possessing others.
What happens in bad SW fiction is that angels get reduced to being Marines with wings and inferior weaponry. They fight against the Balrog from LOTR with 12th century armaments and all look like buff dudes in togas. If you think about it, it’s absurd. Yes, there are symbolic verses about fighting the good fight with the Sword of the Spirit, but we’re talking about a form of life capable of beholding the face of God and existing in the spiritual realm. There’s never any sense of this in SW fiction, or of the fact that buff guys would be an analogy, or a way a believer would somehow process an extra-material entity like that. We manage to make angels and demons mundane.
4. Humans cannot fistfight demons.
There’s not a few books that assume some odd things. Like that demons can manifest in the physical realm, or humans can somehow enter the spiritual realm to fight them. This was one of my beefs with James L. Rubart’s Soul’s Gate, and while its uplifting to assume we can beat the old devil like in Carman’s The Champion, I’m not sure it’s healthy.
If it’s done poorly, you wonder why the demons don’t just come and clean our clocks, or why God would ask humans with the emotional and physical strength of a piece of cardboard to fight what looks like the love child of Godzilla and Cthulhu. But even done correctly, I worry that it’s putting the focus on something impossible to do, when all we are commanded to do is resist, pray, and fast. It’s one thing it it’s pure fantasy, or an allegory, but something about this done in the real world focus of SW books sets me off at times.
5. Everything is spiritual. Demons made me stub my toe.
This is tough.
There’s a point where we can ascribe too much to spiritual intervention. The worst aspect of this are what’s called deliverance ministries, which assume personality traits or mental illnesses are actually demons afflicting you, and it’s really, really bad. It’s one thing to be accused of having a “spirit of rebellion” when disagreeing with your parent, or a spirit of obesity, but people have died from this.
A bad SW book will assume that way too much of a person’s life is controlled by angels or demons. We simply don’t know this side of heaven how much of a part they have to play in our lives, but it’s possible to strip agency, cause fear, and create bad situations when too much is assumed to be out of our hands and needing deliverance. SW books can contribute to this mindset due to the power of fiction; it’s been argued that the movie The Exorcist might have started the whole deliverance thing, for one.
A good SW book will make you think. It won’t cause fear, and it won’t keep you powerless. Instead, it uses tropes and ideas to show the interplay of how the believer trusts in God and keeps faith in Christ, and how this might affect situations in ways that we can’t fully fathom. It’s not going to overspiritualize daily events or be absurd and expect us to do more or suffer more than we are able. This may beg the question whether or not any good SW book exists, but I think if people are aware of bad tropes, they can reduce their power.
What are some things you dislike in spiritual warfare fiction?