Spectrum talks to author and pastor Dan Appel about writing and his recent mystery book, The Choice, published by Autumn House Publishing, an imprint of the Review & Herald Publishing Association. You can also view our Spectrum book review of The Choice.
Question: A pastor publishing a mystery novel seems a bit unusual. What sparked the writing of this novel?
Answer: When you think about it, there is a rich tradition of using story as apologetic in the larger Christian church.
Starting with John Bunyan and continuing on through J.R.R Tolkein and C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Andrew Greeley, Tim LaHaye, and even George MacDonald - whose theology pervades all of his stories - gifted Christians have used story to inject the Christian perspective into the marketplace.
The Adventist church has a curious relationship with fiction. Within the church, we tolerated a vegetarianized genre – such as Uncle Arthur’s bedtime stories and the highly fictionalized accounts of Josephine Cunnington Edwards – because they promoted the values we wished to inculcate in our children and the authors were able to portray children and adults so idealistically that they were considered good role models.
As to what sparked writing my novels: I became convicted a number of years ago that we as Adventists were really doing a very poor job of sharing our faith with those outside of our church. We went around punching people in their spiritual noses then wondered why they had no interest in listening to what we have to say. It had come to the place where the focus was mostly on manipulating people into our church by a very carefully designed process rather than on communicating important truths in the most attractive, alluring and persuasive way and trusting God to lead them to whatever church He wanted them to be in at that point in their lives.
So, I began to focus on communicating what I felt are Biblically-based truths that are important for a person's understanding of God and the controversy between the Kingdom of Darkness and the Kingdom of Light rather than promoting my church. And I figured there was no better place to start looking than the life of Jesus. I was quickly reminded by looking at His life that the very best way to communicate ideas is through stories.
I also realized something else. Beginning in the mid-1800s, Adventists mostly defined themselves in the negative. We became much better known for what we were against rather than what we were for, and I wanted to present our message from a positive perspective.
It became painfully obvious about 20 years ago - when I started looking for some literature to give to some godly Christian friends who had inquired about the Sabbath and why it was important to us - that there was nothing I could give them that didn’t have a certain amount of "cringe factor." Virtually everything on the Adventist market was didactic, mostly from the negative and obligatory perspective. We had become so used to preaching to the choir that we had lost touch with the very people God had called us to influence for eternity.
One day I was muttering and complaining about this, and in one of the only three or four times God has directly spoken verbally to me, He said, "Stop complaining and write your own book."
So I wrote my first work of fiction – a small novel sharing the Bible view on the Sabbath from a positive, non-pugnacious perspective. A Bridge Across Time was published by the Review & Herald as the "sharing book" that year, and since then has sold over 115,000 copies.
Question: Which came first with The Choice – the story or the topic?
Answer: Different novelists approach their craft in different ways. For me the subject comes first, because I am an apologist. The Choice is designed to be the first in a trilogy and I am approaching the next two the same way. My next two books are on the Second Coming and the Mark of the Beast.
When A Bridge Across Time was finished, I became increasingly convicted that while the devil may someday make a life and death issue of the day upon which you worship, right now it is not the major issue people are facing. Take a walk through your local video store, peruse your local Barnes & Noble, or turn on your television and you realize that we are inundated with messages about the supernatural and what happens to human beings before birth and after death. It is total immersion.
Question: So what did you research, and how?
Answer: The last thing that I had any desire to become was the Adventist Church's expert on the occult. But I became increasingly convicted that God wanted me to write on the subject.
I have had the distinct privilege of knowing several people who at one time in their lives had been heavily invested in that whole culture and, through God's miraculous intervention, were freed from it. Their stories had inspired me to think about the subject and to read more about it through the years. (I heavily adapted much from their stories.) Then I read all that I could find that our church had produced on the subject.
Question: The Choice is scary to read – was it scary to write?
Answer: I was quite frankly afraid to start writing a book on the subject. Since I have given my life to God, I don't fear the devil. But I deeply respect him and his power.
In very specific ways God assured me that He would protect me if I would write this book. Every time I started writing all hell would break loose in my churches, my personal life and my family. God did protect me, but it was the worst time of my whole life. I have no doubts that Satan did not want that book written.
Question: Who did you write The Choice for? What type of reader do you hope to impact?
Answer: I didn't write The Choice for an Adventist audience. It has offended some in our church because we live a very sheltered naïve life and want everything to turn out like an Uncle Arthur bedtime Story. Unfortunately, that is not real life. But, from the responses so far, I think that it communicates well with both non-Adventists and Adventists alike.
With all of its faults and failings, I believe passionately that we as a church were raised up by God at this time in earth's history to share some very important truth with the world before Jesus returns the second time. I think that we have not done a very good job of sharing it. My passion in life is presenting what God has given us to share with the non-Adventist world in the most positive light possible.
Question: It's hard for most of us to imagine Adventist theology in a scary book — why does "scary" work for The Choice?
Answer: In a video ad, I warn against reading the book alone at night. That, I have to admit, was a bit of salesmanship. But having said that, you won't understand how true it is until you read the book. It is a scary book. It was designed to be, because it is a scary subject. I could have said, "This is a Christian apologetic dealing with the subject of life after death from the theological perspective of the Bible" but I doubt many would have wanted to read it.
The one thing I did not want to do is in any way make the occult and supernatural attractive in a manner that might attract someone to get involved with it. Is a web from which very few escape and those who do always carry the scars of the battle.
Question: Is the setting (in the South, rural church) inspired by your own experience?
Answer: The first decade of my pastoral ministry was in the southern United States. It is an author's paradise. The people are wonderful, the culture is rich and the setting is as broad a palate as any writer could hope for. So it was natural for me to site my first two novels there. The next will be internationally based, and the final one will center in the Four Corners area of the American southwest.
Question: Can you reflect on the intersection of your pastoring role and your writing life?
Answer: All novelists write autobiographically to one degree or another. The raw material we have to work with is our own experience, adapted to one degree or another, to provide the skeleton, muscles and skin of our story.
So you will meet all kinds of people I have known, popping up in places where they fit, with different noses and different faces acting like they act; or they may appear just as they look, but acting differently. What better place to meet interesting people than in the church?
The biggest problem I have is in finding time to write. I have been told that I am a much better writer than I am a preacher. I wish that Adventist writing paid so well that I could write full time!
Question: You mention some Adventists being offended by your novel. Was this book "scary" for the church to publish?
Answer: I want to thank my church, and specifically the Review & Herald for taking a risk and publishing The Choice. It is not the typical book one would read from an Adventist press.
Many in the Adventist church are not aware that three or four years ago, the Review & Herald publishing house went through a major financial crisis, with Adventists discovering the larger Christian publishing world, Pacific Press’s monopoly on the ownership of local ABCs, and Adventist Sabbath schools using material from non-Adventist publishing houses.
In order to survive, the Review made a commitment to begin marketing books that would be accepted in the larger Christian booksellers market. They adopted a new label, “Autumn House,” and started looking for books that were Adventist, but which were written in a manner that would appeal to the broader Christian and non-Christian world. It is a move many of us had been praying for years for.
I believe with all of my heart that it is a God thing. It will open the door to a whole new generation of Adventist authors to communicate with the outside world. Maybe Cliff Goldstein will finally write the novel he started 40 years ago. Maybe a larger audience than just our church will discover Maylan Schurch or Penny Estes Wheeler. We have some skilled communicators who may finally get their opportunity to show the gifts they have been given by God to the rest of the world.
We have a long way to go to understand marketing to the non-Adventist Christian and secular market. Our thinking is still pretty provincial. But knowing some of the people involved in making this happen, I believe that while the learning curve may be steep, they will learn, and that the very best days of Adventist publishing are ahead of us.