I have come across a few readers, at various times, who avoid certain fantasy books just because the authors are Christian. No other reason is given; they even admit that, until they read a remark in another reader’s review, they didn’t know the author’s religious beliefs.
And it made me wonder why this matters. Can we only read works written by people who ascribe to our own systems of belief? Do these readers equally eschew the works of followers of Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, or no religion at all if it doesn’t mesh with their personal beliefs? Or is it only Christian authors who receive such treatment?
I can guess why. Many Christian authors are known for writing preachy material that seems written “by Christians, for Christians,” employing a mix of scripture, devotional sentiment, and “redeemed or redeemable characters” to reassure the reader that what their reading is appropriate, well worth the time spent. (In some ways, it reminds me of early novelists, who work to assure their readers that their novels contain morals and are appropriate reading material for young ladies and not just “sinful” diversions.)
But is this what Christian authors should look like? Judy R. Carlson, who recently wrote what could be considered the “Eighth Chronicle of Narnia” in her The White Knight, The Lost Kingdom, and the Sea Princess (which I haven’t read yet, but intend to try to get my hands on), discusses this challenge in an article on her writing journey from A Pilgrim in Narnia:
“Unfortunately, there are a plethora of ‘Christian’ books out there but way, way too few books ‘written’ by Christians. As the Medieval writers wrote and believed that we should hide or code our messages, ‘lest a profane man should tred upon the sacred,’ so should we. My book is not a ‘Christian’ book but it is a book written by a Christian. “
C. S. Lewis himself noted the importance of considering a work by its own merits, and not primarily on the basis of the writer’s worldview, in An Experiment in Criticism, using the art of sculpture for comparison:
“[A]n ‘appreciation’ of sculpture which ignored the statue’s shape in favour of the sculptor’s ‘view of life’ 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 as anything else. It will, perhaps, be one more of the Christian fiction devotionals that give Christian writers such a reputation, but Lewis didn’t support the idea that we could only read what reiterated our own view of life. He 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 characters who make choices contrary to what he or she would do in a similar situation. I don’t think focusing on a Christian message or ensuring that one character, at least, converts, is helping our cause or is creating great art, and I think this lack of pursuit for great art is why some readers avoid us like the plague.
“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.”
C. S. Lewis
I think that’s what Christian writing should look like: good, creative, artistic writing that just happens to be infused with the flavor of Christianity from being handled by someone who strongly believes that Christianity is true. Nothing more, and yet nothing less. Not a denial, an apology, or a great deal of preaching, but a heartfelt exploration of the human condition with a Christian mindset behind the work, as a whole.
Copyright 2016 Andrea Lundgren
Photo by wattersflores, Creative Commons