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I'm Jewish. My middle-grade fantasy novel is very Jewish. Most of my characters are either Jews or converts/future converts or people with at least one Jewish grandparent. But some are not.

My main character, Ruth age 12, is 100% of Jewish ancestry but has been raised secular. She lives in the United States in 1995. She starts to get external thoughts in her head about religious things, leading her to organize her family's first Passover seder. Then she hears voices. (Later, she starts to have visions—quick time-travel flashes to Ancient Egypt—but she doesn't mention them here.)

She confides in Phoebe, her best friend who is also her first cousin. Phoebe's mother, Pam, overhears and joins the conversation. Pam was raised in a black Baptist church in Houston, Texas and married a Jewish man she met in college. Then they moved back to his small town in Arizona.

In this scene, Ruth tells Pam about the voices and experiences she's had and Pam tries to help her make sense of it. In the book, the direct voice is a character from Ancient Egypt calling to her and I do not say if the supernatural events that occur are due to "God" or to "magic." It's open to the reader's interpretation.

At this point in the book, it's early, nothing obvious has happened yet, and Ruth and Phoebe don't know if Ruth's experiences are real or, as Phoebe suspects, all in Ruth's head. Pam doesn't know either but is inclined to consider it possible that God is involved.

I wrote the scene, my Jewish spouse thought it was fine, and then I showed it to my critique group. It was way off. I rewrote it some then showed it to a close friend who is an Evangelical Christian. Still way off. The problem is Pam's voice. I am not capturing how a Baptist (or any religious Christian) would express herself in this type of situation.

How do I portray this character with an authentic Christian voice? Both what she brings to the conversation (what is important to her) and how she expresses her thoughts and concerns.

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    What was the criticism: was the character "thinking like a Jew", "a caricature of a Christian", or just "off"? – Galastel Mar 17 at 18:43
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    I think you may need to refine what you're asking a bit, because you've happened to pick somebody from one of the more flamboyant protestant denominations. Black Southern Baptists are very, very different from most Christians. I'm not giving an answer, because I could only give the answer from the perspective of a white boy agnostic raised in a Methodist church, who has spent a grand total of two hours in a black Southern Baptist church for funerals. That experience has only been enough to convince me I do not know enough to give an accurate answer. – Ed Grimm Mar 17 at 18:47
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    Some American Christian sects have jargon that sounds like something between sales team motivational speak, and codewords. I found the concepts weren't difficult, but I wasn't able to imitate their vocabulary…. No idea if that's what your readers didn't hear, or they felt she didn't sound like her background should, or if her religious views were off. Since you don't say specificly I assume they didn't either…. The character would have different ideas depending on how "strict" her church is (Baptists in general tend to be more emotional/charismatic than scripture/doctrine). – wetcircuit Mar 17 at 19:25
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    @Galastel "thinking like a Jew." And it's true. I live in a country where Christianity is mainstream, where things deemed "secular" are actually Christian-based, so of course I'm pretty familiar with Christian culture and organization. A lot more than my friends who grew up in countries without a strong Christian presence are. But there's a lot I don't know, mainly how Christians talk to each other (or to their non-Christian family members). – Cyn Mar 17 at 19:57
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    @Cyn - I'd be willing to critique this scene for you -- you already have my email. I'm not a Baptist myself, but I'm a Christian, and I've spent plenty of time in black Baptist churches... it's hard to give any general advice to such a specific problem. – Chris Sunami Mar 18 at 16:22

13 Answers 13

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I'm a white Baptist who is married to a black Baptist, so if you have specific questions about the sort of things we say and do, maybe I can help. :-)

What you describe is an example of a problem writers face all the time: How do I write a character whose background is very different from my own?

Some advice I can think of that would apply here and to other "different cultures":

Step 1: Recognize that not everyone in the world thinks the same way you do. I think you've grasped this or you wouldn't be asking the question.

Different groups often have their own vocabulary. Sometimes this is technical language. When a physicist talks about "energy" he means something rather different than when a fitness trainer talks about "energy". Or in this context, Baptists (and other Christians) have many technical theological terms. Some have fancy names, like "Dispensationalism". Others are common English words to which Christians give more specific meanings than the general usage, like "grace" and "save". There are a few common words that Christians give totally different meanings, like "rapture".

I often get a chuckle out of the fact that when a group of Baptists get together to just eat or generally have a good time, what most people would call a "party", we call a "fellowship".

So you want your characters to talk like real members of the group. Like if two Baptists were discussing someone who recently converted to their religion, they almost certainly would NOT say, "We successfully proselytized him yesterday". They would probably say, "He was saved yesterday."

But don't overdo it. I'm a software developer. I know lots of technical computer terms. But in casual conversations with friends and family, I almost never use technical computer terms. Even in conversations with fellow software developers, most of the conversation does not involve technical terminology. Every now I or a co-worker actually do say a sentence that is almost entirely technical terms, and I get a chuckle to myself about how incomprehensible that sentence would be to an outsider. Same thing with other groups. Yes, when I'm talking to fellow Baptists we use "Baptist-speak". But 90% of the conversation would be perfectly comprehensible to people who do not know our vocabulary. Especially avoid over-use of specialized language in generic contexts. Like I've seen many depictions of evangelical Christians in TV and movies where every other word is some religious reference, like they can't say "bye, see you tomorrow", but say something "religious" like, "Godspeed, and may the Lord be with you until we meet again". No, we just don't talk like that.

Find out what people really believe, and not what their opponents say they believe. To take a relevant example: I often see depictions of evangelical Christians where they are extremely judgemental, denouncing everyone around them as a sinner and preening about how much better they are than these other people. Maybe you could find some Christians who talk like that, but I've never met one. Not to get into a theological discussion, but one of the most basic teachings of evangelical Christianity is that all humans are sinners, and that the Christian's advantage is most definitely not that he is better than anyone else, but that he is forgiven. When a Baptist meets a prostitute or a drug dealer or whatever, he does not say, "Get a way from me, I don't want to be contaminated by you low-lifes". He is far more likely to say, "Let me tell you how God forgave me for my sins and he can do the same for you."

Or on a much lighter note, I just read somewhere, I forget where, a Christian noted that when someone visits a priest or minister on a TV show, they always seem to meet in the sanctuary of the church, and the minister addresses them as "my son" or "my daughter". In real life, ministers have offices that look pretty much like the office of any professional, and they call people by their names just like everyone else.

But aside from these sort of generalities and examples, how do you deal with all the practical details?

Others have suggested reading books written by Christians. Definitely so. Especially novels, that might give you more of the day to day than a non-fiction book.

Ideally, talk to real Christians. You mentioned that you had some Christian friends or associates who read your drafts. Ask them for specific flaws. Not just, "This character doesn't talk like a real Baptist", but what's wrong with her speech, exactly? Can you point to a few sentences that are examples of things a Baptist would be unlikely to say, and tell me what they would say in those circumstances?

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Read authentic Christian voices

Find works written by religious Christians on religious subjects, and read them. These can either be non-fiction works, or stories with religious themes. Ideally, you'll read both. Try to find a variety of voices, and consider how the authors' other demographics (and their specific denomination) will affect their voices as well. (Works about non-religious matters by religious authors will also be useful, but the unique qualities of their voice may be harder to separate.)

When it comes time to create the character's voice, remember that they are more than just their religious identity - they need more to their voice than just the elements that you've identified as Christian.

Practice by writing from the character's POV, ideally in first person

The best way to fully master a character's voice is to dive into their head and tell the story from their point of view. Don't worry about the fact that this work won't make it into the final book, write it anyways. You can either write the scenes of your story that this character is a part of, or different scenes that are important to the character but unrelated to the story that you are telling, or even just a day in their life.

Keep writing until you feel like you understand their voice, and then return to writing your main story from it's regular POV, and you will likely find that when it comes time to add this character's voice in third person, it will come to you much easier, and stay distinct from the other voices.

In addition, diving into the character's head will probably deepen your understanding of the character and expand their personality, so that's a side benefit.

  • Thanks. I feel like I have a good handle on Pam's character aside from this bit. I have friends who are charismatic/evangelical Christians (I understand the split from doctrinal but get hung up on the specific label differences). I agree with reading works and I have, both fiction and nonfiction. The latter is mostly Biblical commentaries as I've been researching that extensively for the book and they often come up when I'm searching. I'm having problems translating this all into dialogue for this scene though. – Cyn Mar 17 at 20:04
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    Also, for speech patterns in particular and in the US (don't know about elsewhere): Sunday morning TV; there's usually something on one of those local channels you usually skip past because they never have anything you actually want to watch. – Monica Cellio Mar 17 at 20:07
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Every social group has its own dialect: that's called a sociolect. As dialects, it is hard to pick a sociolect for an outsider. Think how many writers handle teenager language in a horrible way.

There are two main ways to improve your understanding and fluency in a sociolect:

  1. Read, read, and read litterature by "native" speaker of the sociolect. Or watch movies they make. Better, if possible, spend time with Christian people.

  2. Have a Christian proofread your text, in the same way that movie makers use scientists to validate the scientific part of their work. Be sure that he understood the ideas you want to convey in that scene, and be ready to accept their criticism. That's great that you already started this process by asking relatives, but you need more detailed feedback on what is "way off".

A remark to conclude: When learning a sociolect, learn also when people use it and when they don't. Most people speak different dialects: their geographic dialects, their social dialects, the technological dialects of their workplace, their sport, their online community,... Christian people are not in "Christian mode" all day long or they become caricatures. I found Eugene from The Walking Dead extremely upsetting as he never breaks from his "scientist" role and speaks in casual conversation like no real-life scientist would speak. This either means that Eugene is "special" (is he doing this to look smart and keep his position in the community?) or that the writers don't understand anything about the scientific community.

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    Thanks for your answer. I've done the things you suggest but what's missing is talking to writers who understand the culture I'm trying to portray. So I'm hoping for some specific insights. – Cyn Mar 18 at 0:18
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    I will add that every sociolect has its shibboleths. These words and phrases mark one as a member of the group, as well as conveying whatever meaning is otherwise communicated by them. And if you're not a member of that group, there is a very high probability that you'll use those shibboleths in an inauthentic way. I would definitely seek out a few people who grew up in a black Baptist church and ask them if Pam's dialogue and actions sound right to them. – Monty Harder Mar 18 at 18:19
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Pam might also consider that some supernatural forces other than God are involved. Basically, four possibilities spring to mind:

  • This is the legitimate voice of God speaking
  • This is some other supernatural force, which might be heavenly angelic, or supernaturally demonic
  • This might be a biological issue, caused by some insanity, brain tumor, or other problem. (In other words, Ruth might be honest, thinking what she is saying, even if such a voice is not actually happening anywhere outside of her head.)
  • Ruth might be lying

The first one-and-a-half of those sound very, very good. The second two-and-a-half of those sound very, very bad. Perhaps your audience is innately skeptical of Pam just embracing Ruth's claims without having any sense of fear of the latter possibilities. Any of those problems (spiritual, biological, or moral) are quite undesirable.

If Pam is a woman who is full of faith, she might be perfectly willing to believe those first (more positive) possibilities. However, using wisdom, she may want to approach Ruth's claims with significant caution until Pam is more comfortable with what she is dealing with. A common approach would be to seek God's insight, especially involving prayer, and preferably through inviting Ruth to pray with her. (Remember, Christians view their God as being the same as the God of Orthodox Judaism. So Ruth might or might not agree enough to be comfortable with Pam's invitation, but from Pam's Christian perspective, such a prayer may not seem inappropriate, at least if Ruth is comfortable enough to accept the invitation, and so Pam may feel quite comfortable to make such an offer.)

I'm discounting a 5th possibility:

  • magic

From a common Christian biblical perspective, sorcery and even evil miracles are mentioned in the bible, but churches often just describe such effects as the result of the second bullet point mentioned above. So, while your literary work might (eventually) identify that as actual reality, that's not particularly a very "Christian" perspective (at least, not in modernized Western civilization) for Pam to be naturally inclined to start thinking along those lines first.

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Perhaps the crux of the problem is you are thinking of Pam as a Baptist.

While I was in the hospital, I befriended a former missionary who had spent twenty five years in China. I made the mistake of referring to him and his wife as religious. She let it pass once, but on the second time she told me she was not religious - she and her husband were people of FAITH. Her emphasis, not mine.

She went on to explain that ‘religious’ was restricting and narrow, making it seem like she could be judgemental.

She went to church services regularly, but never considered it more than a simple conduit of faith. Her faith was not in her religion, but in her god.

Since knowing them and receiving that firm correction, I have been able to understand the occasional character I write who is of a faith - religion is a dangerous and contentious word. Faith is clearer, more pure and enduring.

Try Pam as a woman of faith who was raised Baptist.

Pam has married outside her religion, so is much more a woman of faith than religion. She has opened herself up and embraced the fact that her love is of another religion.

Overhearing a child telling of hearing voices could be disturbing to her, but she would have a hope that this was something very special. Without trying to scare Ruth, she would probably probe a bit.

Pam probably would offer to pray with Ruth to seek the answer. Her faith is deep - an ever moving river which keeps her strong despite all of her struggles. She might question and would certainly hope that Ruth was experiencing something benign. She will be worried about Ruth, her survival and the effect these voices might be having on such a child.

  • That's a good point, thanks. – Cyn Mar 17 at 20:05
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    But not WWLJD... – Graham Mar 17 at 22:59
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    Very good point about marrying outside her religion - by itself that marks Pam as an extremely abnormal Southern Baptist Christian. @Cyn Are you aware that most evangelican Christians are against marrying non-Christians? Falling in love with her husband would have rocked her faith at the time, and she sadly is likely to have faced ostracism from some people in the Southern Baptist community. This would all deeply shape Pam's character and outlook on life. – curiousdannii Mar 18 at 3:37
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    @curiousdannii Yes, I am aware that intermarriage back in 1980 (and even today) is an issue for many. Both that they are different races and different religions. – Cyn Mar 18 at 4:03
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    There are some who are ostracized for marrying within the religion but outside of their sect. – Rasdashan Mar 18 at 5:48
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What Southern Baptists teach

Hell is as central to the Christian mythos as Heaven. Maybe "central" is not the right term, they co-exist as a sort of carrot and stick – arguably for the same purpose, to keep one on the straight and narrow road.

In Baptist specifically, the baptism is a life-changing ritual. You are "saved" or you aren't. There is no grey. You can also get re-baptized.

It is a religion designed for illiterate people. This is not an insult, there is a reason Southern Baptist played well where it did. There is no group reading. Participation is singing familiar hymns. Sermons are emotional and charismatic. Group empathy is re-enforced by songs and prayer which is led by a central "preacher" or "pastor". The communal part is saying "Amen" together at the end. The only scriptures we actually memorized were John 3:16 and maybe the Lord's Prayer – both are considered summaries of the whole gospel. They were learned by rote, not analysis.

The preacher's sermon is structured like a "motivational speech", so natural language, humorous anecdotes, typically not very deep into scripture or biblical lore. It is extremely patriarchal and conservative (compared to other American Christian sects). Women have only soft power so there is often status devotion towards the central charismatic figure (usually the preacher).

God is extremely abstract. Being protestant there are no official depictions of Christ – except they are everywhere, Christ at all ages: baby to resurrection, but in storybooks not up on the alter. Christ is a perfect ideal, and there is no critical separation between philosopher and magician. It is not a cerebral religion, it is feelings.

What Would Pam Do?

I think you have a wide range of options for how Pam might react, however – and this is speaking from experience – Southern Baptists grow up learning about, and understanding the motivations of "The Devil" (this is the name I grew up with in Texas, attending a Southern Baptist church). The Devil is just as likely to start speaking directly to a person – especially un-saved people (which is everyone outside the Baptist faith, including Methodists and Jews and Catholics) – The Devil may be even more likely to speak to these people than an abstract God.

However, she is just as likely to assume her daughter's friend is having a schizophrenic episode, probably depending on her family experience with mental illness. Consider her background, and whether her family had access to medical care, or worked in hospital care, social services, household aide, etc, where they would have encountered people needing care. Her concerns might be religious, but she also might ask a few loaded questions about medication. She could hold both ideas as "true", a religious voice does not exclude a mental health issue.

As a "good" Southern Baptist her reaction would be empathetic, nurturing, and non-judgemental. She would be looking to render care (probably food if she suspects schizophrenia), and she might set aside critical details about the voices, assuming her faith will protect herself, and she should always try to help any one in need, unconditionally. That seems like an extremely good character, but that would be the ideal.

What I would not expect from Pam, would be that she would have any functional knowledge of the Biblical era, or be able to quote from the bible at length. She would not have a strong knowledge of any Old Testament stories, but she might know many stories from the New Testament, but from hearing the sermons not from studying the scriptures.

personal observations

From your comments, you have a character who is inquisitive, intelligent, and history-oriented. I can't stress enough that these aspects of her personality would not be rewarded by the Southern Baptist community I grew up in. Having personal experience with this sect, I wonder why she did not drift away from this very specific doctrine to a more generically American (non-denominational) version of Christianity. (Americans are consumerist in their selection of religion, unlike most of the rest of the world.)

She seems to be a character who has a deep-rooted faith, who is included to steer the story towards a possible divine interpretation.

But, a Black American Southern Baptist has almost no connection to the Biblical Middle East. Southern Baptists do not focus on scriptures or geographic details of the Bible stories, they are perceived as parables intended to be interpreted into a modern context. Jesus and the The Devil exist today (if they spoke to you, they would not be saying "Thy" and "Thou", they would talk exactly like we talk today). Sermons emphasize the (reductive) "universality" of the Bible's message, potentially at the expense of historical accuracy and critical thinking. A modern slogan like "Jesus Saves!" is more likely than an accurate quote out of the bible.

There is no Southern Baptist equivalent to the seder that teaches history and how to interpret an individual's relationship with their cultural identity. In strong contrast we were scolded for asking too many questions, and debating with an elder was treated as anti-faith rebellion.

Southern Baptist is way more conservative than Baptist, or Christianity in general.

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    A couple notes: 1) Ruth is Pam's niece. 2) It's Ruth's cousin (and later the cousin's brother) who worry about Ruth's mental health, so it's covered. 3) Pam has a college degree, is a big reader, and isn't the type not to ask questions, though I hear you on the religion being okay with people who only interact with the surface meanings. Thanks. – Cyn Mar 17 at 23:21
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    @Cyn you have very specific characterisation in mind: she's not the one who questions mental health, she's not the one who doesn't ask questions either. Maybe you need to reconsider some of this, if you want to retain Pam's religion? Not necessarily, but maybe? If they seem not to mesh together well? – Galastel Mar 17 at 23:39
  • Well I have specific things in mind because I know the characters and I've already written the scene. It's just not gelling right and I need to figure out why. I may indeed need to do more substantial changes than tweaking the dialogue. That's why I'm reading every answer and comment carefully. I appreciate your input. – Cyn Mar 18 at 0:15
  • It's worth noting that this may vary wildly. While the Southern Baptists I have known were generally not particularly open to debate, their Bible memory is extensive. I know one guy who memorized whole books of the New Testament, and could summon up psalms and commandments pretty much at will too. – Deolater Mar 20 at 14:44
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Growing up in Israel, I am surrounded by Jews. Interacting with Christian acquaintances, and reading literature written by religious Christians, there are a few things I noticed - things that stood out to me as not being what is to me "the norm". (This is not an exhaustive study. Those are broad generalisations based on relatively limited personal experience.)

Faith is understood differently by Jews and Christians. That is, being a "good Christian" is different from being a "good Jew" not only in the technical rules one follows (Kashrut etc.) but in how one thinks of the whole thing.

Consider Tevye the Dairyman, especially the way he is presented in Fiddler on the Roof. He is in constant dialogue with God: "Would it spoil some vast eternal plan, if I were a wealthy man?" He is not a "bad Jew" for asking questions. In fact, we admire Abraham and Moses for arguing with God, for taking a moral stand.
We argue with God, we also argue about how we should follow God's commandments. The Gemara is all discussions and arguments, and of course it doesn't stop there. Our belief tends to the logical rather than the mystical. Consider how the Rambam explains why rules make sense, and how they make sense. We always ask why. We have a cultural respect for knowledge, for study, and because of that - for science. Rambam wrote at length about it, at the same time as Christian monasteries were not at all keen on the idea.

For Christians, as I understand it, questioning God is not a good way to behave. One is supposed to meekly accept, bow, obey, "have faith". Look at The Lord of the Rings, a profoundly Christian work: compare Aragorn (good) to Boromir (bad). Boromir doesn't stop questioning Gandalf's decisions - he uses his own head, he wants explanations, he wants to have it logically proven to him that their course is the right one. Aragorn, on the other hand, questions nothing and trusts Gandalf.

'But do not you know the word, Gandalf?' asked Boromir in surprise.
'No!' said the wizard.
The others looked dismayed; only Aragorn, who knew Gandalf well, remained silent and unmoved.
'Then what was the use of bringing us to this accursed spot?' cried Boromir (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, book 2, chapter 4 - A Journey in the Dark)

(This is one of multiple examples that form a pattern.)

Another important element: Judaism is very understanding and accepting of humans being humans. We are not expected to be saints - we are expected to make mistakes. It is understood. We do not seek absolute perfection, in fact we treat it with suspicion - it just can't be. In Christianity, the whole thing with confession etc. - the philosophy blames each and every human for each and every mistake. They've sinned, they're bad, they're undeserving of heaven...

Which brings us to the different attitude to this life and the next. Christian theology is very focused on Heaven and Hell, and avoiding the latter. This life is a "corridor" on the way to the next, and you must work very hard to end up in the right place. For Jews, all the focus is on this life. The afterlife is barely touched on, and there are so many varied opinions on it in the various sources, that consensus appears to be "when we get there, we'll find out". Hell is rather a foreign concept to us.


The thing about those core philosophies is, you can reject religion entirely, and yet your understanding of what being religious means would still be coloured by that religion you rejected. Or, one might think of oneself as "bad Christian" or "bad Jew", and those would be reflections of their perception of "good Christian/Jew". Whether your Christian character is religious, or not at all, she would still have this understanding.

If Pam suspects God is involved in what Ruth is experiencing, I would imagine her reaction would turn to fear and awe rather than to curiosity, and she might be more passive - accepting the experience rather than trying to figure out what God is trying to say. At least, that's my understanding of it all.

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    I appreciate your insights but I think you're falling into the same trap that I did (and my spouse): we're viewing Christianity with the lens of Judaism. To a degree, that's a good thing. I mean, we're a minority culture (okay, not in Israel, but in the world) and it's refreshing to get a non-mainstream POV. But my goal is to be true to Pam and the cultures she represents. She isn't a passive person and, while the broad strokes you use may be more or less true, I don't think most religious Christians would agree they describe them. – Cyn Mar 17 at 23:02
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    Dear @Galastel you misunderstand Christianity. First, though trusting and obeying God is very important to us we are free to question too - we do read of Abraham, Moses, the psalms and the prophets after all. While we do seek absolute perfection it is as a free gift from God, despite the mistakes we make in our lives - we don't live our lives anxiously trying to achieve it. We do believe that what comes after is greater than our earthly lives but we trust God with regards to that. If I believed God was speaking to someone my response would be hope, excitement, curiosity. – Ben Mar 17 at 23:12
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    @Ben if you feel like doing it, I'd love to see an answer you write. – Cyn Mar 17 at 23:24
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    The point you are missing is that to get a character voice you need to understand how the character sees themselves, not how somebody of other religions does. Otherwise it will look "wrong" or "fake". I actually had to reinterpret what you were saying to get your point, for example. To illustrate, by reversing your post, you'd get a statement about Judaism being typified by constant disbelief and doubt of God, lack of interest in improving themselves and nihilism. Which I hope you agree is nonsense. On a positive note this might the same issue Cyn has, so yours might be very useful answer. – Ville Niemi Mar 18 at 2:52
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    @Galastel Oddly enough, Christians see Judaism as requiring perfectly following many rules, while Christianity as focused on forgiveness and understanding that people mess up. Outsider views are very complicated. – Deolater Mar 18 at 13:49
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Overdoing it is worse than underdoing it.

This isn't a complete answer, but remember that Christians are, before anything else, people. Yes, they might see the world differently, but then again, not that differently. It is way more off-putting to overdo the difference than to under-do it. Consider this example from Donna Leon's The Death of Faith:

‘And you’re the gardener?’ Brunetti asked, though it was hardly necessary.

‘By the goodness of God, I am that. I’ve worked in this garden,’ he began, giving Brunetti a closer look, ‘since the time you were a boy.’

‘It’s beautiful, Brother. You should be proud of it.’

The old man gave Brunetti a sudden look from under his thick eyebrows. Pride was, after all, one of the seven deadly sins. ‘Proud that beauty like this gives glory to God, that is,’ Brunetti amended, and the monk’s smile was restored.

Now, (spoiler alert), this monk later turns out to be a religious fanatic. But that doesn't take away the point that no Christian, monk or not, religious fanatic or not, that I have ever met (and I know some very religious people), has ever talked that way. If you read this, not only it feels obvious that Donna Leon has never talked to an actual monk in her life, it also makes it seem as if she thinks monks are some weird kinds of aliens that don't use the same words or have the same feelings as other people.

Don't write like this.

  • That is an excellent point. Less is often more. I have known former members of religious orders and their faith was something intensely personal that was never reflected in their speech. The former priest, nun and monk never said a word about religion or faith, but they lived it every day – Rasdashan Mar 18 at 14:52
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Sounds like an interesting premise. I’d probably like that story for my Jewish family; it sounds like you acknowledge some realities of Jewish life in America that a lot of fiction is ambivalent about.

First, I’d like to highlight Arcanist Lupus’ suggestion to read “authentic Christian voices.” Blogs and social media are good too, and might give you a more conversational voice than a book. The closer to the character’s background, the better.

Pam is also a character influenced by multiple perspectives. You don’t say how much Baptist doctrine she personally believes, or if she converted, or she got her husband to, or if it’s an interfaith marriage, or if they’re irreligious but value their different cultural backgrounds. She’s an educated person, and might think of a psychiatric explanation. (If she knows the subject, she probably decides that schizophrenia is not likely at Ruth’s age.) She’d have seen the same pop culture as other Americans her age.

Although it’s easy to find examples online of Evangelical Christians who think that voices in people’s heads come from the Devil, that might paint the character in an unsympathetic light, which I don’t think is your intent. She doesn’t sound like the kind of Christian who believes that.

She did, though, grow up in a culture which is more likely to look for family and faith to deal with issues like this, and less likely to seek professional help. The National Alliance on Mental Illness attributes this to “distrust” of the mental-health profession because of its past history of overdiagnosing African-Americans with mental illness, and the fact that “In the African American community, family, community and spiritual beliefs tend to be great sources of strength and support.” This is followed by several howevers, however, including that many believe “that a mental health condition is a personal weakness or some sort of punishment from God,” and “Be aware that sometimes faith communities can be a source of distress and stigma if they are misinformed about mental health or do not know how to support families dealing with these conditions.”

Even if Pam is a sympathetic and knowledgeable character, and none of those caveats apply to her, her cultural background still might make her less likely to tell anyone else that her niece is hearing voices and more likely to think that a spiritual approach is an appropriate way for Ruth to find strength and get through it. You don’t say where the plot is going to go from there, but there’s a good chance that works for your story.

  • Thanks for addressing the issues head on. Only a few days pass between this scene and when the kids time travel (and lose contact with the adults). The cousins agree to let Ruth plan her boat outing and worry about what they'll do after Ruth's ideas of time travel fail. Of course they don't fail... I don't see any of the adults deciding Ruth needs immediate intervention (she doesn't tell anyone else though). Most adults would take a wait and see position for something that just pops up like this. Also, this is a book for kids so I'm happy with some smoothing over of these concerns. – Cyn Mar 18 at 4:22
  • Time travel? Who’d have guessed? Anyway, yeah, wait-and-see is a good approach for the adults to take here. Kids shouldn’t feel ashamed to talk about problems like this with their families. – Davislor Mar 18 at 4:43
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    Ha ha anyone who has read the other dozen questions and dozens of answers I've made talking about this book. I didn't give the plot here because it wasn't really relevant. But yeah, it's fantasy. – Cyn Mar 18 at 5:15
4

What's the voice of an African American woman raised Christian, who married a Jew and moved away from her home congregation and community to be with him?

An interesting question for this white retired Lutheran minister who's moved around a lot!

My African American preacher acquaintances (sorry for the stereotype) have a distinctive cadence of speech. I took a seminary class from such a man called "The Jazz of Preaching." It's hard to describe in words; you have to hear it.

Is this woman doctrinally rigid? Probably not. It probably would be out of character for her to rant about heaven and hell. Does she know the power of prayer? Yes. She's almost certainly not a Southern Baptist (hey, she's not white!)

Is her speech informed by the language of the King James translation of the Bible? Surely it is. Is it informed by the Nevi'im, the prophetic parts of the Hebrew Bible (prophetic meaning "speaking truth about God's justice and mercy" not "the end of the world is tomorrow"). Probably it is.

So, take a look at the epic rant of Isaiah in chapter 58. Imagine how that would sound to a preteen African American girl in church, being read out by a very demonstrative preacher. Same dealio for Ezekiel 37 (the valley of dry bones). Another interesting passage might be the account of the man born blind in the Gospel of John. The ideas in these passages probably helped form her character.

Listen to some of Dr. King's recorded speeches to get a sense of the cadence and use of language.

Now, your character is no preacher. Most of the time she probably speaks modestly. But if she's riled up she may speak a bit like Dr. King reading Isaiah. Probably she says things like "thank Jesus" once in a while. But she probably avoids overdoing it.

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    BTW, if the Jewish character has had any exposure to it at all, she might recognize parts of Isaiah 58 from hearing them in the synagogue on Yom Kippur. – Monica Cellio Mar 19 at 2:31
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    Yea! An answer from a clergyperson, thank you! And thank you for being (I think) the only person to point out that the Southern Baptists and the Black Baptists do not generally overlap. – Cyn Mar 19 at 5:34
  • @Cyn That's not really true. Most Southern Baptists are white, but a very sizeable minority are not. The SBC has about 1 million African-American members, out of 15 million total, and 20% of churches are majority non-white. – curiousdannii Mar 20 at 3:50
  • @curiousdannii While I'm not easily finding numbers of black Baptists and which church they belong to, it looks like there are about 9 million members of the two largest black baptist church orgs in the US. So as a rough measure, maybe 10% of black Baptists are in the SBC. Does that sound right to you? Ref: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baptists_in_the_United_States – Cyn Mar 20 at 4:13
  • @Cyn I'm not from the US and don't really know sorry. But from that Wikipedia page, it looks like there are about 15 million in African American Baptist denominations, let alone all the rest. So probably less than 10% of Black baptists would be in the SBC. Maybe closer to 5%? – curiousdannii Mar 20 at 4:17
3

Christianity is enormously broad and most Christians know little about it.

Christianity is so broad that unless your character is meant to hold a special position within a specific Church that it is hard to write in the wrong voice. There are people that call themselves Christian that hold an enormously broad system of beliefs. Even merely looking at the major groupings The Catholic Church holds very different beliefs from the Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints who in turn have marked differences from the Southern Baptists (the largest Protestant denomination in the US) who are markedly different from the Greek Orthodox Church. They all will call themselves Christian.

And those are just looking at the reasonably mainstream groupings. There are numerous smaller denominations and even cults that call themselves Christian with an enormous variety of beliefs, some of which could be considered so far beyond the pale that more mainstream Christians may deny that those small denominations are Christians at all.

Also, most adherents choose their church based on convenience rather than carefully scrutinizing the beliefs of their church, and even the ones that carefully scrutinize the doctrine may elect to ignore some minor differences in choosing their church. I am an active believer (though a bad one) and I attend a church (occasionally) where I have minor but genuine disagreements with my pastor.

With this enormous variety, you almost have to actively try to write in a voice that is clearly and absolutely non-Christian. It would be hard to even say that a statement that most Christians would vociferously deny is even truly outside a Christian voice. A plausible argument could be made that the Baha'i Faith is a type of Christianity for instance and they also believe that Muhammad was a prophet.

Also, most Christians do not know much about their faith. Many Christians do not know what transubstantiation is, much less have an opinion about it.

In short, many people may disagree on whether something is in a Christian voice or not because it does not match their view of Christianity, not because it is truly outside of a Christian Voice. What falls within Christianity though is tremendously broad.

If you want to write about an expert in a certain denomination, consult with experts in that denomination and read specific material about it.

Things change when your main character is supposed to be an expert within a certain denomination. A Baptist Preacher will know precisely what transubstantiation is and have strong opinions on it along with a host of other things like what would constitute a miracle and a Catholic Priest will have different opinions on those topics. At that point you are not writing about a generic Christian voice, but about someone knowledgeable in a specific branch of Christianity.

The best answer there is to seek the opinion of someone who is an expert in that branch, or at least a serious practitioner of that particular branch, rather than just a Christian that chose that church out of convenience. If you cannot do that for some reason, then read the writings of that branch and get a feeling through that about what your chosen branch believes and how they discuss it.

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    @curiousdannii thank you for clarifying. I overlooked that. – TimothyAWiseman Mar 20 at 15:25
1

What Pam is doing is called counseling. Today, there are several evangelical schools or traditions of counseling, and Pam might have taken courses or read books or attended conferences. Even if she didn't, her preacher (and elders, diacons, etc.) probably did, so it's part of her Christian culture.

A good starting point for an African American view:

  • Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction by Robert W. Kellemen and Karole A. Edwards

Other books you might be interested in:

  • Psychology and Christianity: Five Views by Eric L. Johnson (current schools of counseling, history and theory)

  • Counseling and Christianity: Five Approaches by Stephen P. Greggo (current schools of counseling, practice)

  • Soul Physicians: A Theology of Soul Care and Spiritual Direction by Robert W. Kellemen (theological wisdom)

  • Wow I had never heard of "counseling" (in this context). That first book unfortunately isn't in my library system (or Hoopla) but I added it to my Goodreads to-read list. Thanks! – Cyn Mar 19 at 15:23
0

How do you write a believable Christian voice for Pam?

You may take other people's advice, as mentioned by other posters here, but you may also take another approach.

  1. Google "How do I become a Baptist Christian?" or "How do I become a Christian? Baptist."

  2. Read Christianity for Dummies.

  3. Believe in Jesus... or pretend to believe in Jesus.

  4. Read Baptist Christian interpretations of scripture.

  5. Read Baptist Christian apologetics.

  6. Absorb as much of the worldview as you can.

  7. Imagine that you are a Baptist Christian. Write a diary entry. Then, take Pam's scenario. Write her diary entry.

  8. Give your work to a Black Baptist Christian reader for critique.

  9. If all else fails, co-author with a Black Baptist Christian.

At the end of the day, fiction is fiction. It is not supposed to be real. If you are writing to a group of Jewish readers, then they wouldn't care if Pam's opinions are accurate or not; and they probably couldn't tell if Pam's opinions are true. If Pam's opinions make sense in the plot of the story, then that's all that matters. Accuracy is really not that important. However, we live in a globalized community, and something we say in books can offend some people of the global human population, especially when we write the book in a global language (English). Therefore, we have become like that Aesop's fable about the man, his son, and his ass. We must be sensitive to the feelings of diverse readers, or else that might hurt our sales. When actual Christian readers look at the work, with their opinions and worldviews, and they cannot empathize with Pam, then Pam will feel like a fake character to them. In the digital age, they will probably express their opinions online, giving your book a negative rating and review. In a global community, your reputation may be tarnished, because of those negative ratings and reviews.

In absolute terms, fiction is fiction; it is make-believe, based on the author's imagination. If you are not X, then you cannot represent the authentic voice of X. You cannot claim that you represent the authentic voice of X. The story is not a historical document, in which you are documenting things that happened. The story is derived from your mind, focusing on the plot and characters. As the narrator of that story, you have to make the reader empathize with the characters. If you have readers from very diverse backgrounds, then that would be much more difficult than readers from similar backgrounds, because you have to tend to their likes, dislikes, and sensibilities. There are billions of people in the world; you simply cannot please everybody.

So, practically speaking, making a believable voice for a character is imagining what that character would say, but also listening to your diverse readers or target group so that you don't offend them. The "believable voice" is in no way authentic, because it is still derived from your mind. However, people from different backgrounds can empathize with the character, and that's what makes the character "authentic" to them.

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    Why do I want to accurately portray someone else's culture and religion? Because. I'm a little baffled by the idea that I need a reason. And, sure, I do want Christian readers, and Muslim and Atheist and Buddhist and ... In the US, Christians are the vast majority of the population so they'll probably buy more copies of the book than anyone else, just based on sheer numbers (or at least, I should be so lucky). – Cyn Mar 18 at 5:15
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    The people we create in our works should seem real and true if we do our job well. Cyn wanting to get the voice right is certainly something that should not seem unusual nor require explanation. – Rasdashan Mar 18 at 6:23
  • @Rasdashan If the work is written in modern Hebrew, then Hebrew-literate Jewish readers may be more likely to read your book. They are unlikely to comment about the accuracy of a Christian character. If you publish in English in the US, then yes, you'll have to consider Christians in your audience and be sensitive to their sensibilities. The characters should seem real and true to your audience. That's why mainstream Chinese-American works sell so well in the US. They play on white American perceptions. – Double U Mar 18 at 13:17
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    -1 While it may be true that not every audience member will insist on accuracy of the portrayal of someone of a different culture, and that most members of the audience might not even be able to tell the difference, I can't therefore call it good advice to not even try. We live in a global world, and the modern standard is that you don't put a character in your fiction without at least trying to portray them authentically (the enduring popularity of stereotypes notwithstanding). – Chris Sunami Mar 18 at 21:11
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    While it's true that I'm much better at capturing the voice of someone who is more like me culturally, it's my job as a writer to try to capture other voices. The last thing I want is to avoid "different" characters because I'm afraid to write them, or not to care if I get it wrong. That's why I'm asking here, to get insights from people who know this specific culture better than I do. If I write something in the future with a Chinese or Chinese-American character and ask a question, I hope you'll help me out with an answer. – Cyn Mar 19 at 5:38

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