What’s the point of Christian fiction? Can it do any good? Should it even exist?
These are some of the questions I have been mulling over as I have been working on several novels over the last ten (or thirty) years or so. I have found them difficult to answer, but here are some scattered ideas that I have tried to rake into a pile.
Should Christian Fiction Even Exist?
From one point of view, the whole notion of “Christian fiction” is dubious or offensive
From one point of view (often a “literary” point of view), the whole notion of “Christian fiction” is dubious or offensive. Christians should seek to be “good writers”, not Christian writers. The most important questions for the writer revolve around whether his or her story is telling the truth about the world and the characters in it. If it’s good writing and true writing—that’s enough. Bolting on a gospel outline or conversion story won’t make a bad story good—it will just make it bad propaganda.
I want to partly, perhaps even mostly, agree with this.
Writing (like all human work) need not be seen as anything more than an enterprise of common grace. Christian writers are not bound to pursue overtly Christian themes in their work any more than Christian plumbers. “Working for the Lord” (Col 3:23) might mean just doing a good job. By this standard, the writer’s first duty is just to work hard and try to be truthful. She should bear faithful witness to the good and bad in human existence. She must resist cynicism, exploitation and cheap emotional manipulation.
Beginning with Story
In an earlier draft, I wrote that I thought this commitment to truth is a basic requirement for being a successful writer; that if we fail here, people won’t want to read our stuff anyway because it will be bad writing. On reflection, I don’t think that’s completely true. Good and true writing is not necessarily popular. Popular writing is not necessarily good and true.
Yet I think it is still true enough, to warn us against thinking we can short-change things like character and plot in the name of some ulterior agenda. We have seen, for example, how a preoccupation with ideology—manifest in the form of the Mary Sue—has made it harder for writers to produce engaging storylines.
Christians need to heed the same caution when it comes to story. As Lewis warns:
Let the pictures tell you their own moral. For the moral inherent in them will rise from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life. But if they don’t show you any moral, don’t put one in. For the moral you put in is likely to be a platitude, or even a falsehood, skimmed from the surface of your consciousness … The only moral that is of any value is that which arises inevitably from the whole cast of the author’s mind.
(C.S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”)
Whose Truth, Whose Reality?
Nevertheless, “just tell the truth” is too simple. As has become increasingly clear, Christians and secular people tend to see the world and its truths differently. They come to it with different preconceptions and expectations. They have different ideas about what people really need and what the world is really like.
“Just tell the truth” is too simple … secular people see the world and its truths differently.
This raises the bar for the Christian writer. If he wants to deal with the themes that are closest to his heart, then he must not only struggle to tell a story that feels right to him, he must also work harder to overcome the hostile instincts of his secular audience. He will have to work harder to show that this character, theme, or turning point makes sense or is inevitable.
This is harder where modern society has actively rejected classic story forms and motifs—the happy ending or the male rescuer, for example. Sometimes a good and (potentially) popular story might be blocked by gatekeepers who consider themselves more sophisticated than the mawkish hoi polloi. I was reminded of this when reading Ursula LeGuin the other day:
[W]e have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain. If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em. If it hurts, repeat it. But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else. We have almost lost hold; we can no longer describe happy man, nor make any celebration of joy.
(Ursula K. LeGuin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”)
If we have lost hold of joy (or sin, or salvation, or happy endings etc.), it will be harder to convince us of its reality. Yet that very loss must also mean that our hunger for it is greater. If the writer can win through—can write well enough to overcome the resistance—then dramatic things might be achieved. Consider the impact of George MacDonald on the young Lewis:
It is as if I were carried sleeping across the frontier … I did not yet know (and I was long in learning) the name of the new quality, the bright shadow, that rested on the travels of Anodos. I do now. It was Holiness. … And now I saw the bright shadow coming out of the book into the real world and resting there, transforming all common things and yet itself unchanged. Or, more accurately, I saw the common things drawn into the bright shadow. … In the then invincible ignorance of my intellect, all this was given me without asking, even without consent. That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptised; the rest of me, not unnaturally, took longer. I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes.
(Lewis, Surprised by Joy)
Reality Made Strange
This effect in Lewis was not accidental—it is precisely what MacDonald was aiming for—what he thought art was for: to make familiar things strange so they could be seen afresh in their glory:
… art rescues nature from the weary and sated regards of our senses, and the degrading injustice of our anxious everyday life, and, appealing to the imagination, which dwells apart, reveals Nature in some degree as she really is, and as she represents herself to the eye of the child, whose every-day life, fearless and unambitious, meets the true import of the wonder-teeming world around him …
(George MacDonald, Phantastes)
We could multiply quotes on this theme: Chesterton, Hans Christian Anderson, Brecht all express similar theories. But Lewis would take the idea and make it the basis of his own mythic fiction:
The value of the myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by ‘the veil of familiarity.’ The child enjoys his cold meat, otherwise dull to him, by pretending it is buffalo, just killed with his own bow and arrow. And the child is wise. The real meat comes back to him more savory for having been dipped in a story…by putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it.
It is well known, of course, that this was how Lewis was able to get past his own prejudices about Christianity. When Tolkien told him to consider the gospel as the Ur-source of the pagan myths he was drawn to, Lewis was able to see it in a new light. In writing the Narnia series, he tried to pass on the favour:
I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood … supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.
(C.S. Lewis, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s To Be Said”)
Of course this approach also has its dangers. Quite a few secular readers who discover the Aslan-Jesus connection, experience the reverse of what Lewis intended: their hostility to Christianity disenchants the myth. Perhaps—“mythic” fiction has a particular weakness at this point. The more the story might be treated as an allegory, the easier it is to dismiss it.
But the principle of cognitive estrangement (Ezra Klein’s term) applies to other genres too. Christian characters can still “steal past” preconceptions if they are drawn well. For example:
- Henry, the soiled, but sincere Christian in Tim Winton’s That Eye the Sky;
- Marilynne Robinson’s Minister John Ames from Gilead;
- The Amish farmer Jacob in David Williams’ apocalyptic When the English Fall
- Arseny, the holy fool attempting to atone for his (fatal) sins in Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus
- Daniel Nayeri’s depiction of his own exuberant neuroticism (as a young Iranian migrant) in Everything Sad Is Untrue
These well-drawn figures make belief strange in the same way that fairy tales make the world strange. They turn up without the baggage of the modern culture wars. Or their flaws and eccentricities make us more willing to see their virtues. Or the depiction of their sin makes us a little more willing to believe in their redemption. It isn’t easy:
Good characters in fiction are the very devil. Not only because most authors have too little material to make them of, but because we as readers have a strong subconscious wish to find them incredible. Notice how cleverly [Walter] Scott gets under our guard by making Jeanie Deans inferior to us in everything but her virtues. That gives us our sop: we are taken off our guard. In [Charles] Williams we are similarly off our guard. We see his good people in strange circumstances and do not think of calling them good. Only later on reflection to we discover what we have been surprised into accepting.
(Lewis, “The Novels of Charles Williams”)
Finally, this is not the only way ahead. Flannery O’Connor’s approach isn’t to “steal past those watchful dragons” but to shock and pre-empt them. Her religious people characters arrive as ugly racist pharisees who must be exposed and humiliated before they can be saved by divine grace. There is the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find”— finally speaking to her would-be murderer with genuine grace. There is the vision of the pig-farmer’s wife in “Revelation” who suddenly sees herself under the same grace as the “white trash and black n—–s.”
This approach—talking about religious hypocrisy to secular readers—can disarm hostility and open a small window to talk about what real faith is about (this is the same approach currently deployed by the Centre for Public Christianity in its “For the Love of God Series”). The surprising redemption of hypocrites throws things off balance.
However O’Connor is also capable of throwing a punch directly at secularists. In “Good Country People” the proud college-atheist, Joy, is robbed and humiliated by a more consistently nihilistic Bible-salesman: “You ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!” This is a presuppositional apologetic embodied in story: godlessness is unliveable—if we are smug about there being no God, we’re living in a fool’s paradise. O’Connor provides the wakeup call with a freakshow.
So that’s it: all I know about the possibility of Christian fiction. Maybe it’s slim pickings. Christian fiction is either just the same as good writing, or it points us to reality by means of surprise and subversion. Have I missed something?
Featured Image: Cover illustration of Tolkien’s “Smith of Wootton Major” by Pauline Baynes
 See a persuasive exposition of this here: https://reconstructionistradio.com/dorothy-sayers-part-2-on-art-theology-and-work/
 For example, Neil Gailman, in The View from the Cheap Seats: “I was personally offended: I felt that an author, whom I had trusted, had had a hidden agenda. I had nothing against religion, or religion in fiction … My upset was, I think, that it made less of Narnia for me, it made it less interesting a thing, less interesting a place.”