For the next two weeks, we will be featuring Biblical fiction and some of our favorite authors and books in this genre. What better way to start this feature than an interview with Francine Rivers. Francine talks with Christel about her start in the genre, the challenges of writing Biblical fiction, and why she shredded the first manuscript for Tamar’s novella.
Christel: You’ve written two fantastic series set in Biblical era: Lineage of Grace and Sons of Encouragement. What led you to the decision to write these novels?
Francine: An editor at Tyndale House planted the seed. I hadn’t thought about writing Biblical fiction, but was fascinated by the women mentioned in the first chapter of Matthew. Why were these specific women mentioned? Tyndale encouraged my quest for answers. What was it about each woman that God wanted to point out? When we first talked about a series of novellas, the number mentioned was four. Tamar makes people uncomfortable. Even so, God placed her in the lineage for a reason.
I learned what these women had in common. They were all willing to risk everything, even their lives, for the best of what God offered them. Four of them were not Hebrew, which also made it clear God intended salvation for all who believed in Him.
For me, each woman lived out an attribute of the faith journey.
Tamar (hope) was willing to risk execution to have a child in order to continue the line of Judah. Genesis 38 is a celebration of her life and the impact she had on the life of Judah. Rahab (faith) was willing to risk her life to follow the God of the Israel. God held up the portion of wall in which she lived and rescued her and then grafted her into His people. Ruth (love) was willing to give up her home, family, country, and culture in order to follow Naomi to Israel and to God. Ruth was the caregiver who ended up being cared for by the Lord, her Redeemer. Bathsheba (grace) was willing to lose her reputation and possibly her life in order to be with David, and through the anguish that followed their sin of adultery, she found out God loved her far more than any man ever could. She had a place of honor in King Solomon’s court. Mary (obedience) was willing to risk her reputation and life in order to become the mother of the Messiah. And God gave her the blessing of the Holy Spirit – the gift He gives every believer today.
Sons of Encouragement came after I’d worked on And The Shofar Blew, a story about how far too many churches are being “built” today. What I learned through the process of writing the story is the need for church leaders (especially pastors) to be held accountable. Rather than focus on the man in the spotlight (Moses, Joshua, David, etc.), I wanted to spotlight the less celebrated men behind the scenes who served faithfully and helped strength, encourage, confront, and stand firmly in faith with a leader. Instead of Moses, I wanted to study Aaron. There is a whole book about Joshua, but there was Caleb, who spoke out first and boldly to believe God’s promise and go claim the Promised Land. Jonathan encouraged David, even though David would claim Jonathan’s birthright to be the next king of Israel. Jonathan wanted God’s king to rule, and kept the nation together for years until that day would come. Amos confronted a nation that needed to hear the truth, and died for it. We know very little about Silas, but he traveled with the Paul and Timothy. He served as the Apostle Paul’s secretary and later fulfilled that duty for Peter. Where would we be without the unsung hero who took dictation from Paul and Peter and sent the letters to the churches?
The Bible is full of fascinating people, and each offers countless lessons for us today.
Christel: Which is your favorite Biblical fiction novel you’ve written, and why? What would be your favorite Biblical fiction you haven’t written?
Francine: I doubt it would be called Biblical fiction, but Redeeming Love is my favorite novel and it is based on the book of Hosea which had a profound impact on my life. It was the first book I wrote as a born-again Christian, and the last book published with a general market publishing house. When the book went out of print, I got the rights back. I was able to edit and add things I couldn’t have in the original, and it was republished by Multnomah Waterbrook in 1997. I call the new edition the “redeemed version” of Redeeming Love. It’s an allegory about how deep, wide, high and long is God’s unfailing love for each of us.
As to Biblical fiction I’d like to tackle, the list is long. The story of the widow’s mite has always fascinated me. Who was she? How did she become so poor? What did Jesus do for her? He saw her heart and valued her gift. He wouldn’t have lost sight of her. I’m not even sure it could be Biblical fiction because there is so little information. Most of the story would have to be speculation, possibilities, lessons woven in from the parables and people surrounding that one single event that Jesus made sure was in scripture. Something to ponder.
Christel: What is the most challenging aspect about researching and writing a Biblical fiction novel?
Francine: The hardest part for me is to put aside the commentaries written by westerners and learn about how eastern people think and live. I wrote the entire novella on Tamar before I realized I had completely missed the point of her story. The first manuscript went into the shredder. Many commentaries considered Tamar an immoral woman who tricked Judah. She did trick him, but she was within her legal rights according to her society. When she asked him for his seal, cord and staff, she was asking for his identity. Imagine a man handing over his social security card, his driver’s license and life insurance policy! Judah wanted sex. Tamar wanted a child to carry on the family name. When her pregnancy became known, Judah ordered her to suffer the execution of a sorceress. Rather than cry out her case in the streets (also her right), she sent his identification items privately and left the decision to him. He could kill her and cover his sin. Would he be the same man who sold his brother in slavery? Or would he “man up”, speak the truth and save her life and the life of his unborn child. Judah became a man. And Tamar received the double blessing from God of twin sons.
Research is exciting. It’s challenging, too, because we have to remember these weren’t western people. Yet, the lessons from their lives apply to all people everywhere. God’s Word is applicable to every human being on the planet.
Christel: There are some who question the appropriateness of fictionalizing a Bible story – i.e. writers shouldn’t play with something that’s considered a sacred text. How would you respond to this thought process?
Francine: Biblical fiction is never meant to replace or change the Word of God. It is meant to be a bridge back into scripture. Whenever someone reads a Biblical novel or novella, the hope is the reader will go back to the Bible and check the details and think about what God says. The story I write is what I learned from studying the scriptures, but God will have many more lessons for readers. Biblical fiction or any Christian fiction is meant to whet the appetite for the real thing: the Bible and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Christian fiction is a tool to open conversation with those still lost.
Christel: There is a wide range of Biblical fiction, from very safe to really stretching accepted scripture interpretation. What are some personal guidelines that you set for yourself in terms of writing novels based on the Bible?
Francine: When writing Biblical fiction, it’s important to explore the scriptures. Someone said “A text out of context is a pretext”. So I study where a story takes place. What happened before? What happened afterward? Why is this person’s story where it is? Placement is always important. It’s also important to understand the times and study books on the manners and customs of whatever period the person lived in. It’s essential to read material that is as close to the times as possible, and there is plenty available.
It is also essential to be open to correction. I am blessed to work with a publishing house that stakes its reputation on making sure things are doctrinally correct. So if an editor or executive raises a question, I am eager to hear what they have to say. If I disagree, I need to have all my material ready to present my case. The primary objective for all of us is to offer readers the best fiction we can that will encourage faith and challenge readers to dig deeper into God’s Word for themselves.
Christel: What is the greatest blessing that you’ve discovered through your writing ministry and what do you find the most challenging?
Francine: The more I read the Bible, the more exciting it becomes and the more passionate I am about it. God meets us right where we are and He instructs us through the Holy Spirit. Isn’t that absolutely mind-boggling! The God who created the universe and everything in it indwells us in order to bring us close to Himself, to teach us and light the path He prepared for us. He loves us. Is there anything more amazing than that? I am blessed to have a job that allows me hours to study and ponder and go on quests, knowing God is in the midst of that journey and He will show me the way through the labyrinth that is the process of writing. I’m looking for answers. He holds them all.
Christel: What can we expect next from you?
Francine: I’m working on a story about two very wounded people contending with this life and with one another. One trusts in the Lord with every fiber of her being, but appears to have nothing this world offers. The other has everything and has no sense of purpose or peace. There are other struggles woven in. I’ve been studying near-death-experiences. We tend to hear only the wonderful ones about heaven, but there are many accounts of people seeing visions of hell. What troubles me lately is how so people many seem to think Jesus came to enhance our lives. Jesus is not an “add on”. He is life itself. He came to save us. He paid the price for our deliverance. People have to make a choice. Yes or no. Maybe is a no. When our heart takes that last beat, there won’t be any second chances.