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|Stranger in the Chat Room|
by Todd & Jeff Hafer
Published by Bethany House, 2003
Suggested by: Greg Slade
There is an informal tradition in the Christian publishing world. When a publisher has a title which is a little bit outside the traditional historical/romance genre which has become standard in Christian bookstores, the marketing people try to find something which has been successful in the past to which to compare it, presumably to reassure readers that the work is still suitably "Christian", even if it doesn't follow the usual tropes, as if to say, "See? C.S. Lewis did something just like it!" C.S. Lewis is the most frequent standard of comparison, but J.R.R. Tolkien has also been invoked to reassure timorous readers that this book is, in fact, "safe to read." Unfortunately, such a comparison invariably harms the work which it is intended to promote. For one thing, Lewis and Tolkien tower so high above most of the fiction on the shelves these days that virtually any author's work is going to look worse in comparison, and bringing them explicitly to mind makes it all the more clear how much less powerful a work is being offered. For another thing, the comparison seems to be most frequently made in promoting those works which are least worthy in their own right: far too many scribblers have latched on to some stylistic element, plot device, or literary conceit, and assumed that they can then crank out works indistinguishable from the masters, without the bother of a lifetime of study and devotion. In this case, the marketers (and even the authors) have fallen into the trap, and done the work a disservice which is unfair on several levels. No, this is not on a par with the work of Lewis or Tolkien, but neither is it a slavish rip-off. Rather, it is a work which deserves to be evaluated on its own merits, even though the marketing blurbs make an objective evaluation more difficult, if not impossible.
In one sense, Stranger in the Chat Room is a sequel to In the Chat Room with God, in that it continues on with the characters from the earlier book, but the authors insist that it is not a straight sequel. (Among other differences, this book was published by a different publisher.) The setup is simple enough: in the first book, a bunch of teenagers spending time together in an Internet "chat room" encounter another person whom they eventually come to recognise as God Himself. In this book, they encounter another person whose point of view is antithetical. If they can chat with God online, why not the devil?
For those of you who have not ventured "online", a "chat room" is a setup where two or more computers are connected to a server. Whatever each person types on their screen is copied to the screens of every other person who is connected, and in this way, a sort of conversation can be carried on. In some ways, this is much like the kind of conversations you'd encounter drinking coffee after a church service: people drift into and out of groups, there is no set agenda, and the number of people in any given group can rapidly grow and shrink, depending on how interesting the conversation in that particular group is. However, there are also significant differences from face-to-face conversations. Since it is not possible to see the other participants, the normal cues by which people judge one another (skin color, age, clothing, grooming, accent, demeanor) are all unavailable. Instead, people become valued in online conversations by other measures: the ability to read and type quickly in order to "keep up with the group" is important, as is the ability to express your thoughts clearly and concisely. Spelling and grammar count, but criticizing another person for making a typo or grammatical error is actually worse than making one yourself. It's popular to use abbreviations, nicknames, and a sort of online "shorthand" (by replacing commonly used phrases with the first letter of each word, such as "ROTFLOL" for "Rolling On The Floor Laughing Out Loud"), but using too much online slang marks you as a "newbie" who's trying too hard to fit in. People frequently, even usually, adopt an online persona, using a "handle" or nickname, which is different from their real name, and it's not at all uncommon for people to give their online persona a different name, age, socioeconomic status, and even gender. (In other words, in cyberspace, nobody can tell that you're not tall, dark, handsome, and rich.) Despite that, people still feel betrayed to discover that they have been "taken in" by somebody else's online make-believe, even when they do it themselves, and deliberately impersonating another user is extremely offensive. Some of the exchanges in this book would probably seem breathtakingly rude to somebody who has not spent time online, but it is not so much a manner of online society having no manners, but that online manners (called "netiquette") are based on different principles. The first commandment of life online is "thou shalt not waste another user's bandwidth." (This is why "spam" is so universally despised: it uses other people's bandwidth to try to sell them stuff. Never mind that the products and services on offer are usually pretty slimy in and of themselves, the real offence is that spammers are using up other people's bandwidth against their will.)
All of this, Hafer & Hafer capture quite well. The characters write believably in the dialect of online users. (This is not to say that the book reads exactly like a chat room. Different people read and type at different speeds, so reactions from different people to the same comment or question can be spaced out by multiple seconds or even minutes online. A transcript of an actual online session would contain messages on multiple subjects, all apparently out of order. Writing the book that way would have made it unreadable to anybody who was not experienced at sorting out multi-threaded conversations online.) Hafer & Hafer are also good at drawing the reader into the story. I finished the book in one sitting. (I stayed up past my bed time to finish it, too. Fortunately for the quality of my work the next day, it's fairly short.)
Are the problems with this book? For me, there are three. First, the characters, especially the Christian characters, sometimes sound more like divinity students than teenagers. Even though they carry the burden of speaking for the authors, it would have been a better story had they been a bit more "in character." Second, I personally have a real problem with fiction which puts words in God's mouth. The deepest thought of the most holy and devout theologians in history are all "so much straw" compared to the words of God Himself, and merely authors, including Hafer & Hafer, simply cannot produce dialogue with the depth and power of the real thing. At best, such dialogue simply rings false. At worst, it contains false teaching. Given the central literary conceit of the books, it's hard to see how they could have told their tale without "putting words in God's mouth", and they do seem to have attempted (not always successfully) not to put in anything which could not be defended from scripture. I can't tell you my final complaint without giving away the plot, but it comes from attempting to tie things up so neatly at the end that, in a sense, they betray that central literary conceit.
On balance, I can't recommend this as a terribly deep or significant work of theology or characterisation. It's even hard to draw out a moral to be learned by teenagers encountering evil online (for there is evil online, just as there is in the real world.) Still, it is a fairly realistic picture of online conversations, and an entertaining read. (February, 2004)
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