by Joseph Bayly
There is much to say about Winterflight, a novel that covers a lot of complex, difficult questions, dealing with them from a clearly Christian perspective. From a more literary standpoint, it is easy to criticize the book for being too overtly Christian, falling sometimes into overlong discussions of particular points of view about specific doctrines, such as the Christian's responsibility when s/he lives in a state where the government is oppressive or antagonistic toward one's faith. In addition, the dialogue is sometimes pretty weak, being at its strongest when these theological discussions are going on. I am sure that many non-christian readers would dislike the book's tendency to harp on theological issues. It should be seen as a book fitting into the niche of the philosophical novel, where ideas are explored in depth, sometimes at the expense of plot, character development, dialogue, or other more literary considerations. Books such as The Sleepwalkers or Man's Fate come to mind for me when I think of this sort of novel, or — another Christian novel — After the Fire. This sort of work is not something that just anyone can enjoy, but they do make for a good avenue for consideration of hard issues, for those who are looking for such things.
The issues that are raised in Winterflight, then, are worth mentioning. It is a highly politicized book, talking about the role of government in individual lives, and the responsibility of the Christian when the state s/he lives in becomes oppressive or overtly antagonistic toward Christians, especially when it compels believers to act in a way that goes against God's commands. This issue is often at center stage, an ever-present question throughout the novel. No easy (or even satisfactory) answer is given, but a clear indictment seems to be offered: American Christians have been complacent as their nation slid further and further from Christian ideals, and the full impact of that complacency is yet to be seen. Remember that this novel was written in the late 70s, published in the early 80s. It is easy to imagine how much more distressing Bayly would find American Christianity today.
The other issues that bring the question of the relationship between Christians and the bodies that govern them into the foreground include life-and-death issues, and I mean that literally. Euthanasia for the elderly and/or disabled, aborting fetuses that are determined to be unfit for "normal" life, eradicating illness by eradicating the ill, and the ethics of organ donation all take center stage in the plot of the narrative. These are, of course, questions that have been explored in various ways in works of science fiction since the genre first began to take shape, and I believe they will continue to demand attention for a long time to come. In Winterflight, the Christian characters are divided on how to address these problems, and it is interesting to consider the various views that are presented.
In the volume of Winterflight that I have (produced in 2004), there is an appendix that contains a letter from Bayly to one of his critics. It addresses well some of the controversial points surrounding the book. The ending is clearly unsatisfactory for Christian readers, if one is looking merely for a neat and tidy way of solving difficult problems. Bayly addresses this in the only way that I think it can be addressed: what would we have happen, an easy (and unrealistic) ending, or an honest look at the struggle that includes some heart-rending implications of the complacency we see in contemporary Christianity? If you would choose the latter rather than the former, then Winterflight is definitely not going to be to your taste. The book unflinchingly examines some very difficult conclusions that can be drawn from the various viewpoints presented in the book. It opts for honesty over "emotionally satisfying," and I truly appreciate that aspect of Bayly's work.
One side point that I found rather bemusing in Bayly's letter was that some Christians had apparently written to him concerning the use of "vulgarisms" by one or two of his characters. He addresses this in a good-spirited manner, though the tone makes me think he was as puzzled by the comment as I am. I have to say I appreciate that, as he points out, he never took God's name in vain in the novel, which should be of much more importance to Christians than seeing a non-Christian character use mildly offensive language. The misuse of the Lord's name, which should offend us much more, Bayly believes would have been overlooked by many of the same readers who took offense at the mild cursing of a non-Christian character in distress. In all honesty, I found the Christian characters clear avoidance of cursing to be much more distracting than the mild cursing of the other characters. And, as Bayly expressed, it is a little distressing to think that the same Christians who are so complacent about the move away from Christian values in America are so concerned over the use of a mild expletive. It seems a very clear case of missing the log in ones own eye while inspecting the mote in another's.
© Shelly Bryant, 2012