In his book, An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis examines many facets of books and reading in support of his thesis that a better way to examine the merits of a book is to examine how those who read the book approach the work and why they like it. However, along the way he makes some comments about preachy prose in fiction which is particularly applicable to Christian Literature in general, as that genre seems especially prone to said prose.
I don’t think any discussion of a Christian Philosophy on writing is complete without some discussion of Christian propaganda. As Lewis puts it, there is a belief that “all good books are good primarily because they give us knowledge, teach us ‘truths’ about ‘life’.” While he examines the belief in general, this idea gains specificity when in the hands of some Christian authors and readers until a novel is only considered “good” if a sinful character is converted or if the reader is presented with the salvation message somewhere, all under the guise of “character development” or plot.
The trouble is, such content is often added to the work, gratuitously, without helping it at all, and it actually serves to weaken the purity and excellent of the book. Lewis transfers this overall approach to that of three dimensional art and writes that “an ‘appreciation’ of sculpture which ignored the statue’s shape in favour of the sculptor’s ‘view of life’ [or hidden sermonette] would be self-deception. It is by the shape that it is a statue. Only because it is a statue do we come to be mentioning the sculptor’s view of life at all.”
If a novel doesn’t succeed in being a good novel—in being true to its characters and dedicated to the integrity of its plot without any philosophical detours—it won’t be good for anything else. Lewis writes, “In good reading there ought to be no ‘problem of belief’…A true lover of literature should be in one way like an honest examiner, who is prepared to give the highest marks to the telling, felicitous and well-documented exposition of views he dissents from or even abominates.” In a similar way, a true author who loves his own work will strive to show those characters, that world, that story as it is, even when dealing with evil characters who make choices contrary to what he would do in a similar situation. He cannot make his characters convert to Christianity just to suit himself.
This is not to say that Christian authors won’t end up writing with an overall, Christian outlook. Lewis writes, “The great artist—or at all events the great literary artists—cannot be a man shallow either in his thoughts or his feelings. However improbably and abnormal a story he has chosen, it will, as we say, ‘come to life’ in his hands. The life to which it comes will be impregnated with all the wisdom, knowledge and experience the author has; and even more by something which I can only vaguely describe as the flavour or ‘feel’ that actual life has for him.”
Thus, a Christian, no matter what or how she writes, will incorporate elements that she finds in life because of her faith: hope, perhaps, or love, or joy, or moral integrity. They will naturally creep in because she is writing about life, and for her, that is part of life. But when these elements are added, just to achieve a particular message, one is no longer dealing with a work of art. It has become a sermon, a piece of propaganda…anything but a novel.
Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren
Photo by gagilas, Creative Commons