Written expressly for the needs of an audience with less life experience, young adult stories can help teenagers process complex subjects like building mutually life-giving friendships or the experience of losing a loved one or humanity’s responsibility for caring for the well-being of the planet.
The role of stories in helping young people understand their world is something to which author Tim Ferguson has given a great deal of thought. Ferguson is a writer of Christian educational materials and young adult fantasy. He uses fiction as a vehicle to tackle mature concepts that might not be as accessible for young people through other means. One of these topics is the role of faith in one’s life. As you might expect, this interest is founded in Tim’s own life experience.
Growing up in the 1960s in the Baptist church, Tim was curious about his congregation’s faith. “The questions that I had weren’t always answered,” Tim recalls. “In high school, I was a leader in the youth group. I was given a lot of responsibility. And I had a question. I asked our pastor that question, and he looked at me and he said, ‘Well, the Devil must be getting to you that you asked that question.’ And I thought it was a good question.”
Tim’s questions were legitimate and rooted in honest curiosity, but perhaps more complicated than his pastor cared to admit. Sadly, they were dismissed because they were considered disruptive and not part of wholesome religious dialogue. So Tim—feeling as if he’d taken the wrong path at a fork in the road—had to wait until he attended Muhlenberg College, a Lutheran liberal arts college in Allentown, Pennsylvania. There, while studying the writings of famous theologians, Tim saw that many of the questions he had in his youth were touchpoints of serious discussion.
Tim’s experience in college helped him rework his religious beliefs to see them more maturely. It gave him comfort knowing that other people had the same concerns and curiosities as he did. After college, Tim returned home and now began attending a Presbyterian church. He wanted to find a group within the church he was attending at the time where he could share his thoughts and questions about certain parts of Christianity. Since he was decidedly older than the high school students and no longer fit in with a traditional “youth group,” Tim was charged by the church leaders with starting a new group focused on outreach aimed at young adults around college age. This happened in 1969. Tim notes that this was a significant cultural year for the country as racial sensitivities and images of warfare dominated the news and challenged many of the social norms in American society.
“There weren’t simple answers,” Tim says. “In the 1950s, everything was very simple. You ask a question, it’s a simple answer. You have the Communists, you have us. The good, the bad.”
Tim knew that the times were changing, and that young Christians needed deeper explorations of Christianity. Tim’s search for like-minded believers in Christ led to him starting multiple young adult groups as he earned his Master’s Degrees. After college, Tim became a case worker for child protective services. Later, he worked in adult protective services, intervening on behalf of physically or mentally handicapped clients who were being abused by their caregivers.
Tim’s work didn’t keep him from being involved in the various groups he oversaw. He took joy in giving others a safe place to socialize and ask questions, and wanted to continue being a shepherd of sorts for those whose inquiries might be perceived as threatening to church leadership. In 2000, Tim’s mother challenged him to write a book. She had seen the good work he had done helping Christian youth workers, and felt that such knowledge could better serve those involved with church youth if it was written down. “I never thought of myself as an author,” Tim explains. However, to honor the creative call to action presented by his mother, he poured through all of the old notes he had taken that outlined his successful youth ministry activities. Then, in 2006, he wrote his first book, “Not the Same Old, Done-it-before Youth Meetings.” Created with the novice youth minister in mind, Tim’s first book amounted to 360 pages. This manual is full of prompts for religious discussions, thought experiments, skits, and various games that Tim developed over a period of 25 years.
“Now what I did with this book that I felt made it unique has to do with the indexes in the book… I have two indexes in the book,” Tim says, explaining that he put painstaking research and considerable time into developing the twin indexes. One index is based on scripture, and cross-references aspects of the book as they relate to the books of the Bible from Genesis and Revelation. The second index, which took much longer for Tim to compile, categorizes the content of the book based on 25 individual themes, like love, sports, or prayer. Tim notes that unlike his other books, “Not the Same Old, Done-it-before Youth Meetings” is a specialty book for the submarket of youth ministry. Since it was first published, the book has sold almost 2000 copies, which Tim considers fairly successful when one factors the size of the book’s market. The book also helped Tim gain credibility among leaders of churches in different denominations, as the universal approach of “Not the Same Old, Done-it-before Youth Meetings” is palatable for most Christian churches.
“I got a lot of good responses from all different [churches],” Tim says.
While Tim is no longer part of the youth groups he once led, he communicates with a wide community of Christians on the internet. In 2009, a woman contacted Tim from a church about 15 miles away from Deer Park, New York. She informed Tim that she was going on a mission trip to 10 countries over a period of 10 months. Tim engaged in an online correspondence between his church and the mission trip members by way of his newsletter, which piqued the interest of the younger attendees in Tim’s church family. This idea of encountering a foreign people and having to explain the works of Jesus Christ to them planted the seed of a story in Tim’s mind.
“I came up with the idea of, ‘What if we had a parallel universe—which was much like our world—except for one thing. In that parallel universe, they never had the concept of a God, or of a creator.”
In 2012, Tim wrote the first installment of his young adult Christian fantasy “Chest of Visions” series, entitled “The Chest of Visions: Secrets of Caperston.” The story follows a young man in an alternate reality. He plays with a device that can create portals or windows to other worlds. This young man discovers that another reality has religious beliefs, a concept which is entirely foreign to him. The young man reaches out to a fictionalized version of author Tim Ferguson, seeking to learn more about the message of the Gospels and, most particularly, why people pray. Through this epistolary delivery mechanism, readers can imagine what the arrival of a new messiah might be like without the barrier of the linguistic or historic idiosyncrasies of the Bible.
“What I’ve created is a world, Caperston, that’s just like ours without a concept of God, but a prophet has emerged there,” he says. The world of Caperston is inspired by the biblical village Capernaum, and is a foil to the real world. In addition to giving the Gospel a refreshed take, “The Chest of Visions: Secrets of Caperston” lets younger readers probe adult concepts like the theological notion of “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” or the discomforting idea of death.
Made for kids, “The Chest of Visions” series is something that adult readers of Christian fiction have come to pick up. Tim says that many of the reviews for the book have been really positive, repeating the same praise of “It’s the Christian story told simply and understandably, and it doesn’t matter if you’re 16 or 60.”
“The first book… retells a lot of the Gospel stories, and some of the messages. It deals with miracles, and it deals with faith… it deals with miracles in a way that’s honest.” Tim explains that the “honesty” part of looking at miracles is an attempt for him to address some of the information gaps he had as a kid trying to learn about the Bible. “This book I think opens up the possibility that you can think about some of these stories a little bit differently than maybe you’ve been taught through the early childhood Christian education.”
An example of this is in the way that “Chest of Visions” retells the “Good Samaritan” story in a unique way that readers of the series have found compelling. The stories aren’t meant to be a total recreation of the Bible, however. The finer details of the biblical stories don’t make it into Tim’s writing since he sticks to the more general themes, trusting that readers will gain insight into issues that may have been troubling them.
“I stay away in my writings from getting specific along that type of line,” Tim says. “Particularly in the ‘Chest of Visions’ series, I try to use some of these stories to ask basic questions.”
Tim spent a few years between the first and second book, maintaining his involvement in his church while trying to build an audience for the first book. Eventually, he wanted to see if his creative lighting could strike twice with the impact that he had on readers with the “Chest of Visions” series. He penned the follow-up book “The Chest of Visions: New Pathways ‘cross Broken Highways ” to retell the stories in the Acts of the Apostles.
Tim says that the “Chest of Visions” book caught the eye of a Hollywood producer, but that the book was never optioned for a motion picture. During these discussions, a producer recommended to Tim that he add more sci-fi elements and send one of the characters from Earth to Caperston, which he says added a lot more to the book.
Tim is currently writing his third installment of the “Chest of Visions” series. “In my story the events of the early Christian church correspond to about six generations of events in Caperston,” Tim says. “So I tell the story of these six generations, and simultaneously what is happening on Earth in the future.”
In the plot, global warfare has decimated Earth. Wanting to discover just what happened and who has survived, a young man living in Central Africa leaves his friends and family. The story alternates between the man’s lifelong quest and events happening in Caperston over the same period of time, building up to the mystery of what is in the Chest of Visions.
With all of his writings so far, Tim has worked to make religion more welcoming and inclusive for people. Instead of proselytization or preaching to the choir, Tim’s stories continue the habit of answering the tough questions that many young people have about religion.
“These books are… my way of continuing the mission [on which] I spent a good 40 years of my life,” Tim says.
Tim encourages fans of his books to visit the Facebook group for the “Chest of Visions” series. For further information about Tim Ferguson, be sure to visit his BookSniffer page or his website “Lessons for Christian Youth“.