Sex First, Then Religion

Okay, we tackled sex (go here to read that post and the umpteen comments it generated). How about religion?

and god saidI am in receipt of an essay written by a retired Episcopal priest from Kansas, giving me a polite thumping for the view of religion in Play With Fire, the fifth Kate Shugak novel. He writes, in part:

We find theological challenges is the most unlikely places. I found this one in a murder mystery book by Dana Stabenow titled PLAY WITH FIRE…I’m afraid my perception is that Ms. Stabenow demonstrates a very negative concept of Christianity and organized religion in general…Ms. Stabenow demonstrates a comprehensive detailed cursory examination of the errors in her apparent experiences. Her view of Christianity and organized religion as expressed is, unfortunately, blatantly cursory…My purpose in writing this essay is to serve as a responsible defense of Christianity in the light of Ms. Stabenow’s deliberate dissertation against organized religion and Christianity…

Play With FireThis would not be the first time I have been taken to the woodshed for Pastor Seabolt’s character and his church in Play With Fire. Usually I’m condemned in far more incendiary terms. I’m told the book was brandished from the pulpit of the Anchorage Baptist Temple and proclaimed “the work of the devil” before the congregation. I have had many letters from the deep South, in particular North Carolina (Why North Carolina?), saying I’m going straight to hell.

Couple of things.
First of all, I am flattered beyond belief that my little novel is being taken so seriously.
Second, the events in the novel were based on three real life events in Alaska that occurred in the decade prior to the writing of it, two of them taken from stories I read in the newspaper and the third from a story told to me by an eyewitness. I keep telling you people, I don’t have to make this stuff up.

Killing GroundsThird, the great thing about series fiction is the way the continuing characters develop over the course of the novels, and Kate is no exception. Read Killing Grounds to see what I mean.

Religion. It’s like politics, it’s one of those things you never bring up in company for fear you’ll offend someone. But you don’t scare me. Did Play with Fire make you mad? Turn the taste of your communion wafer sour? Turn you completely off the Kate Shugak series? In which latter case, you probably won’t be reading this post. But if you are, time to weigh in below and tell me what you really think.

Chatter Kate Shugak

Dana View All →

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25 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Off topic, but have you seen Dr Horrible ( It’s what Joss Whedon was working on during the writers’ strike.

    On topic. No, I wasn’t offended by Play With Fire (or the follow up in Killing Grounds); I think my favourite line of the book is, “You don’t need religion; you have literature.” (Also the one with Kate and Jack and “pirates after plunder”, but perhaps that is more appropriate for the previous discussion.)

    I enjoy reading about people’s examination of or quest for their own faith; one of the things I like about Kate is that she is spiritual without being preachy or hypocritical; it’s simply a part of her everyday life. Another notable character whose religion is a marked aspect of his life is Jamie Fraser, or even Malcolm Reynolds, but in his lack of faith or anger with God. I like the way their actions are shaped by their faith or how they reconcile (or are unable to reconcile) some of their actions – having to kill, say – with their faith); it’s interesting to me, seeing what it takes to make them break their faith, or possibly, have it grow stronger.

    And I think it was pretty clear that Kate’s reactions were her biases showing; also that it wasn’t all Christians/Catholics who act this way, but just those specific characters.

    I also love the continuity from Play With Fire to Killing Grounds — did you do that deliberately? Was it a conscious decision after Play With Fire to have a more sympathetic Christian character in Killing Grounds?

  2. Hey it is just fiction right? And you don’t have to make something up if you read it in a newspaper…most likely the reporters already imbellished the story enough.

  3. Yes, Lee, it is just fiction. But you know about the pen, right? It’s mightier than the sword. Or it is eventually.

    No, Handyhunter, I didn’t plan on a more sympathetic character. I’d heard a story about a setnetting minister, and another story about a female minister, and amalgamated the two in Kate8. As I wrote her, she evolved into Anne Flanagan. Kate’s got seriously unresolved issues from her encounter with Pastor Seabolt in Play With Fire, and the scene where Old Sam calls her to account for them in Killing Grounds wrote itself and to this day remains one of my all time favorite Kate scenes.

  4. People, this is a work of fiction! Everybody is taking this sooooo seriously. You write fiction and your characters are great and unique. If people are not prepared to read about someone maybe not like them, then they should not read fiction!

  5. Hi Dana,

    Here’s one North Carolina resident who had no trouble whatsoever with the religious aspects of PWF (and who firmly believes that the Almighty decides who goes where in the afterlife on a case-by-case basis, so anyone judging just by one aspect of your life – such as one book – clearly doesn’t have the whole picture). I agree with handyhunter about Kate’s spirituality, and think that’s another reason why I enjoy the series so much.

    Your post makes me wonder what sort of reactions there are to Julia Spencer-Fleming’s series …

  6. Hey it’s just fiction. If the god squad gets upset, then they can go read the bible, where incidentally there are a lot of unbelievers as well as a lot of implied sex… as an exercise in my writing classes I used to have the students detail out the sex scenes in the bible. Makes for hilarious reading but can cause you trouble with the aforementioned god squadders.

  7. Thanks for answering my question, Dana! I also love that scene where Old Sam gives Kate a bit of a wake up call. 😀

    Your post makes me wonder what sort of reactions there are to Julia Spencer-Fleming’s series …

    I couldn’t get into her writing when I picked up the first book in her series a while back. I’ve been meaning to try again, though, especially since I love the title of her latest, “I Shall Not Want”. (speaking of religion/religious allusion…)

  8. My response comes from my upbringing as a granddaughter of a minister (denomination irrelevant). There was sanctioned physical and mental abuse, restriction of social activities (my brother wasn’t allowed to become a boy Scout), and constant conflict between my parents over church membership. In PWF, I understand the hurt felt by Kate’s aunt when she tried to explain to Seabolt her family’s spiritual beliefs-he showed his ignorance and intolerance with his words.

  9. Reminds me of a comment on SJ’s blog when we were throwing around liberal positions . Guy said he’ll never read another Rozan book . SJ’s reply was that she couldn’t imagine that someone could read her blog and her books and not be aware of her politics . Books spark ideas because any authors ideals leak into their characters ( thank whatever )

  10. I am as surprised at this line of dicussion as I was with the sex in books discussion and completely confused. As far as I know no one is holding a gun to a person’s head and force reading anything, therefore, everyone has the ability to not read if said reading material becomes offensive to them. But keep in mind what is offensive to one is not necessarily offensive to another.

    This whole thing reminds me of the sitcom, Murphy Brown. Then VP Quayle spoke publicly about Brown’s lifestyle…baby born out of wedlock. It was all fiction not real at all and yet the VP spoke as if it was.

    But, Dana, I must give kudos to you. The characters and storyline certainly hit a nerve and you must admit that’s quite something.

  11. It is enormously flattering. And you know? If one of my little novels inspires someone to have a second thought, about anything, it’s just gravy for me.

  12. Dana, I live in North Carolina, and if the folks here say that you’re going straight to hell for what you wrote in “Play With Fire”, you’d better bring a long book when you go, because you’re going to have a long wait in line behind a lot of those same folks.

  13. Another nod from NC… I love the book. And, having gone to a private Christian school in North Carolina, I can relate to the anti-organized religion feeling. Boy! Talk about warping a kid for life! I still won’t go to church or wear dresses.

  14. Hi everyone, my husband and I were discussing infidelity in the Bush (both Liam Campbell and Kate Shugak books). We have one of those exclusive relationships, and even though the idea of two people becoming chemically insane and swept by their passion is understandable, both of us find a LOT of bed-hopping in both Shugak and Campbell worlds. My question is, do Alaskans bed-hop more often than east-coasters due to personality, cultural acceptance, and long winters, or are the two of us really sheltered from the realities of life, or is this just a case of each plot boiling down to a conflict over either money, sex, or the prospect of public dishonor? Just wondering for the sake of intercultural antropology.

    Best regards,

    Kate P.

  15. In reference to the religious post concerning the book, Play With Fire, [which we love]. The reaction by the minister mirrors that received by Author Ruth Parks after she wrote Harp of the South. She and her husband went to mass after the book was published and heard a thunderous and public denunciation of the book by the priest.
    At the time, she was my mortified.
    As an Australian, I particularly love all your references to one of my greatest heroes of all time, Captain James Cook.
    He not only discovered two countries and wrote numerous accurate navigational maps of the ocean and observations of various cultures, which remain until this day. For these deeds, he was rewarded only a month leave from the British Royal Navy. I love your books and look forward to the newsletter. June

  16. I remember when I visited New Zealand and was so tickled to see Mt. Cook, and know that I’d grown up on Cook Inlet, and that they were named for the same guy. Thanks, June! If you like Cook, you should read Blue Latitudes by Tony Horwitz, who follows in Cook’s footsteps around the world. Funny, smart and it will make teachers weep with despair, as he reports that PC revisionism is running rampant across the south Pacific.

  17. Er, we’ve hit Sex and Religion, can we go to Politics? Palin? (I *can’t* believe I’m saying this. I’m the most anti-political person in the world.)

  18. Dana,

    Oy..about NC responses. We’re not all insane bible thumpers, I assure you. Though, NC is in the bible belt after all so maybe we have more than our fair share. 🙂

    I have to say that I was perfectly OK with your portrayal of Pastor Seabolt and religion in Play with Fire. I’ve always thought that faith and organized religion don’t necessary always go hand in hand. Sometimes the more organized you get, the less it becomes about faith and more about an “us vs them” mentality. Religion can be used as a tool for gaining and exerting power over others, like your Pastor Seabolt. Sometimes organized religion will lead to divisiveness, intolerance, and violence. Not all (or even most) organized religion is bad of course, but certainly there are organizations/ruling powers/people who use it to control not empower people.

    I didn’t take it that you were condemning religion or even faith itself. I appreciate you showing that some people do in fact use religion for darker purposes. Good for you.

    PS. I’ve greatly enjoyed reading your books. I look forward to more.


  19. Dana,

    I do have to say, Play with Fire is my least fav Kate book. However, it’s because I think you did too accurate a job portraying the evil Pastor Seabolt.

    Personally, I’m currently off organized religion and I’m following Earl’s path to God. Can you imagine the fit this man (or any complainers you’ve heard) had when he was presented with Saving Grace?


    In response to:
    “I’m afraid my perception is that Ms. Stabenow demonstrates a very negative concept of Christianity and organized religion in general.”

    Sir, I’m afraid you’ve missed the point. In Play with Fire, Ms. Stabenow created a very accurate presentation of the dangers of ruling by fear and the divisions that narrow minded judgements create.

    It’s not a novel about any individual’s spiritual journey. It is about the judgement of taking a different path on spiritual journey.

  20. There’s room for everyone on, so long as we keep it civil. Debate educates and informs and if we’re talking, we’re not shooting.

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