Don’t miss this christian journal article.
People read great works of literature (To Kill a Mockingbird, Les Miserables, Tom Sawyer), and end with the contented feeling that there is someone in the world who is like them, someone who can identify with them, and has been through the same experiences, and understands the same things. Although the quality of the writing matters, it is the human element that draws the reader in, that entices him, brings him to tears at fabricated catastrophe, laughter at spun wit. Literature that struggles with the questions and pain that real people face will draw people in and inspire them to change more than ?Christian’ writing that deals with no real pain, forces no true tragedy, and has no absolute redemption from evil. If this ?real’ literature brings about more of a difference than this ?shallow’ literature, why is it so undervalued in the church today? And if it is truly so influential, should it be allowed a greater place in the ?evangelical’ church today?
Novels that represent real people in the depth of their character are open. There is a difference between the writer who writes to satisfy his own desires and the writer who writes because he can’t help but write—about the grief he has witnessed, the pain he has felt, the injustice he has observed. This kind of writing keeps the reader constantly nodding, with the feeling that all of the fictional events transpiring are realistic. The human experience happens through the senses, and fiction begins where human perception begins (O’Connor 67). The character crosses the divide between imagined and real, and could almost walk right out of the pages. They understand what it feels like to be heartbroken, and they keep living; and so for the heartbroken reading, there is incentive to keep living.
In the same way, ?real’ writing is so because it portrays more honestly sin and the effects that it has on people. The larger meaning, as it were (Gardner 61). To write a story about Goldilocks in the three bear’s home is one thing—to write a story about why Goldilocks is running away, the abuse, the drunken father, the other kids who always point and laugh—to write this story about why is quite another. Not all people like to know the why behind the what. Most don’t. It’s uncomfortable. We shift in our seats, and pull the necks on our collars, and clear our throats.
Because just as none of us can escape this life without being dealt evil, none of us broken humans escapes this life without dealing evil.
Reading literature that delves into the consequences of sin isn’t pleasant; it becomes a reminder of who we are, and what we’ve done. Fiction introduces us to the people in the real world, but they are open and honest, as they seldom are in real life (Knott 10). Flowery happy tales that have nothing but cheer and bubblegum don’t inspire change, if anything they leave a stale taste in the mouth and the tired stamp of continual comparison on the mind.
If there is no great sin or evil dealt with in literature (or in life), there is no room for grace. Grace is flavorless if it is forgiving a paper-cut or a stubbed toe. It is when grace takes a deep breath and overlooks a great misdeed that it is an example for the masses of what real forgiveness looks like. This is what it really means to forgive someone who isn’t sorry, or who doesn’t deserve forgiveness, and this is the kind of grace that is worth emulation. Grace changes people, because they are extended a second chance, a third, a fourth, and somewhere along the way they realize that it is a sacrifice to be forgiven, and they tire of their deeds and turn to truth. Here is a well thought out study about how what we create exhibits grace.
If there is no great sin to buy one back from, so to speak, the purchase begins to feel unnecessary.
If these are just a few of the good things about true to life fiction, why isn’t it a steady value in Christian circles? It would seem that the gates of bookstores should be stampeded continuously with the cries for something that will make a difference, for a story that will illustrate grace and repentance and the better values of hope and redemption. This story invites the reader to see and understand the world in a certain way, and so influences him (Zinsser, 25). This story has value. But it is shoved into the smallest darkest place, hidden because it ?doesn’t teach what we feel is important’ and ?might lead our children astray.’ Christians are scared of what ‘realistic’ literature, so to speak, might make them think. If we are to stay on the straight and narrow path, feet pointed forward, eyes straight ahead, surely the best way to keep from straying is to strictly moderate what comes in? For what comes in highly influences what comes out. This is completely true, and a gluttony for unhealthy intake should never be encouraged—but there is a line that may be walked upon regarding the quality and content of the media that absorbs so much brain space. Sometimes the most thought-provoking things are the ones that don’t stay in the white, but shift over to the gray and occasionally the black, for if everything is good and easy, there is nothing to think about, nothing to work towards, nothing to yearn for.
But even if there is something to yearn for, the classic ?white’ (having to do with content, not race) literature champions might state that this ?dirty’ literature, this writing that doesn’t stay away from the messiness of sin, won’t actually make a difference. Because consumers have become so accustomed to idle intake, this will be yet another thing that is taken in thoughtlessly. The saturation of the audience’s mind with violence, with sex, with sleazy bar scenes, means that one more scene that twinkles in the gray areas won’t change anything at all.
Because as they have become so used to justifying the injustice and the ?dirt,’ it is no longer necessary to analyze content and see it for what it really is.
Every form of media is calling for some form of change—whether it be positive or negative. Nothing is passive; what doesn’t call for good softly encourages bad. But even the positive call sometimes goes unheard, for even the loudest whispers are easily muffled by shouts. The consumer has been trained to avoid thinking, because it’s easier. Quieter, so to speak.
From the general consumer to the specific, there are two kinds of readers. Those who read over and those who read through. The ones who read over are only loosely engaging with the content, seeking for entertainment value or the laughs that witticism provokes. For them, it does not matter if the book is full of fluffy irrelevant concepts, or wild and grand ideals. As soon as they put the book down, they have forgotten what the story (an in-depth study of the power of story) is about. Those who read through, however, will be influenced by what they read. These people sit down with a book in one hand and a pen in the other, ?marking all up in that thing.’ There’s not an idea that goes unnoticed, not a conviction lost on them. Shoving some small light volume into the hands of someone who longs to read through a challenging work is like giving a blacksmith tinfoil to create with. It simply will not suffice. So to those whom it can effect, it will, and keeping it away from them because it might taint them is like feeding a toddler mashed peas and cream of wheat until he’s a teenager—illogical, unhealthy, almost laughable. Just as the palate expands with age, the mind and the ideas it can contain expands with time (before growing more narrow, if the keeper of the mind is not careful).
The truth of the gospel isn’t neat and tidy, like we try to represent it.
We have simmered down the heartbreaking and victorious story of the gospel to a trite recitation of a Sunday school song, and this is the message that we feel compelled to put into every form of media we can. There is not a problem with sharing the gospel, it is what those who are saved by Christ’s sacrifice are called to do—but forcing it wherever it fits (or doesn’t) seems to degrade the value of the message. Can it be that even though ?secular’ literature, as it were, doesn’t state that gospel, there are still messages of redemption in it? The biggest difference between the christian writer and the non-christian novelist is that the saved writer understands that sin is the real decision to go against what God has willed (Lott, 24). In most good stories there is some peace to problem to redemption cycle. It’s the way the most important Story was written, and it’s the fiber and bones of every good story before and since.
If it’s so important for christian circles to appreciate ?messy’ literature, what is wrong with the christian works that are being written? The perfect girl lives the perfect life, her biggest trial coming to call when she can’t find her favorite color of nail polish at the store. Then she meets Mr. Right, they fall in love, he explains the gospel to her in a cloud of bubbles at the wedding ceremony, how she is really the bride of Christ, and they ride away in a horse drawn carriage happily ever after. It isn’t so much the story-line that causes the problem here; every story line has great potential, at least. It is the now regular tendency to portray something so completely unrealistic and pass it off as true.
This tendency comes from the two-fold human desire, either to sculpt a perfect image because it’s what we want (fantasy literature) or to drizzle black onto the canvas of doom because we want to be reminded that our lives aren’t quite as awful as we like to imagine (dystopian fiction). Christian rarely write the second (dystopian), because it disagrees with out end-all-be-all redemption story, but in the first, the pure white steeple picket fence version, Jesus is almost a good luck charm around the neck of the beautiful maiden with unblemished skin. Is this the picture of Christ, His gospel, and His church, that Christians really want to paint? People want to read about themselves, just removed—not someone who is the epitome of perfect in every way.
If this is how we portray what it means to be a christian, no one is good enough.
And if this is how the church interacts with itself (scratching our backs, potluck dinners, prayer meetings) and how it interacts with the world (oh those ?sinners’, sit in the back, don’t bring your drinking problems here), how is that attractive? These are the far ends of the extreme, but people are seldom drawn in by absolutes: you must be saved, you will die, church is where you belong. People don’t want to be harshly convicted—they want to be intrigued and enticed by the gospel. They don’t want it forced down their throats; they want to get their lips a little moist, then try a tentative sip, and perhaps if it hasn’t stung too much on the way down, a more curious mouthful.
With our fluff and petty fiction, we are reducing the explosive power of the gospel to a mere spark in the winter wind: barely noticeable, and irrelevant. And if this is the portrayal of the gospel that we are spreading to those who don’t know it and need to be saved, it is an agonizing under-representation. And how does more ?secular’ literature speak of the gospel? There is certainly none of the language of the ?christian cult,’ but the message of redemption can shine through whatever language covers it. Maybe it would be better to let the more secularized literature show the gospel; not as something that Christians must condone if they are not willing, but as something that speaks for itself. This is an excellent study of telling stories like they really are for the sake of sharing hope and redemption.
The audience at the opera does not need a commentator to tell them they are listening to beautiful and complex music; the reader does not need per-page footnotes explaining the plot and the significance of every minute detail (a well thought out essay here that studies the fine line between “showing” and “telling”) . If christians do not scorn ‘secular’ literature, but appreciate it for what it is—the work done by a human who is broken and searching for wholeness—perhaps a whole new meaning will open up. The analogy doesn’t need to carry far, for not every creative has a deeper intent; but most of them do. But if we let this ?dirty’ fiction speak for itself, if we don’t try to hide it because it’s not perfect. perhaps there will be some positive outcomes. Christian (written by Christians, about Christians, for Christians) literature will have no appeal to anyone who isn’t already a christian—and if we’re not inviting outsiders this way, how will we invite them?
It’s like writing a book about a millionaire’s wedding dress to a child living in a slum; there are concepts there that cannot be grasped, not for lack of intelligence, but for the simple distance between the one picture and the other. If Christians are trying to reach people who need to know the gospel, the colors they understand must creep into the story. This doesn’t mean we must throw mud in the pages—but it must be something they can relate to.
Reaching the lost means holding a candle out to the darkness.
If sometimes we brush up against some unsavory object in the attempt, and our robes of white have dirt on the sleeves, then when we reach them they will know that it was not an idle search. This isn’t free license to write gratuitously sinful content; it is the warning to think about who you’re writing to and write about things that they understand. If you’re writing to perfect people who never have any problems, write about perfect people in a problem-free world. But if you’re writing to people who have experienced sin and pain and grief, write about sin and pain and grief. The times that try men’s souls are the times that change them.