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Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Describing Christian novels

A few years ago, during an attack of hubris, I attempted to define Christian novels. It's a difficult thing to do, to say the least. I now believe that a description makes more sense than a definition. It's not much easier.

I'm avoiding two fundamental issues, namely what a novel is, or what Christianity is.

Here's my description. A Christian novel should include three things. First, some sort of important choice between good and evil. There should also be evidence that a character has hope, beyond despair. Such a work should also contain at least one of the following, as a significant part of the plot, or the theme, or as an attribute of an important character: 1) A Christ-figure 2) Belief in important orthodox Christian doctrine, on the part of a narrator or character 3) Practicing prayer to a monotheistic divine being 4) Having a relationship with such a monotheistic divine being in other significant ways, including receiving guidance from him, or being placed in his presence. (For more discussion of these points, see the post indicated in the first sentence.)

This is a broader description than some have proposed. Angela Hunt put forth a simpler one, with three characteristics only, namely that the story should illustrate some aspect of Christian faith, that the writing should avoid obscenity and profanity (she didn't define these) and that it should offer hope. She was writing about what she has called "faith fiction" which is fiction aimed mainly at a female evangelical Christian audience. Hunt has written a lot of that herself. Hunt writes "I'm sure you're waiting for me to say there must be a conversion scene, a moral, a sermon, prayer, the name of Jesus, Christian protagonists, angels, or something else, but that's it." Most faith fiction does involve a conversion, and some of the other aspects that Hunt mentions, which aren't for her, requirements. I think most faith fiction also includes a marriage, or points toward a forthcoming marriage.

I would agree with Hunt on most matters, and I think our descriptions overlap a great deal. I prefer not to read books with lots of profanity or obscenity in them, but I believe it would be possible to write a thoroughly Christian work, meeting my description, which included such language. I think she's right about hope, although it doesn't seem to me that it would have to be realized within the novel. I thank her for mentioning hope as a critical component. I wouldn't have included it if I hadn't read her post.

My own interest is in what I call fantastic literature. I cannot recall reading any award-winning fantasy or science fiction works which had language that turned me off.

Could a non-Christian write a book that meets my description, or Hunt's? I suppose so. Such an author probably wouldn't.

Let me mention three specific cases. The Narnia books, by C. S. Lewis, match the description. Aslan is a Christ-figure, dying for the sin of someone else. Characters have a relationship with Aslan. The children sometimes pray to Aslan. There are moral choices, lots of them. Perhaps the most important Christian doctrine, the Atonement, is portrayed directly, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It is no wonder that the series is sometimes described as being too preachy.

Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy is not so obvious as the Narnia books. There are moral choices, such as Galadriel's decision not to take the ring from Frodo, Denethor's decision to put his own judgment above Gandalf's, and Saruman's decision to advance himself, rather than trying to defeat Sauron, are bad choices between good and evil. Gandalf dies in Moria, and returns to life, which is part of being a Christ-figure. No one seems to pray. No one seems to have a relationship with the higher deity or deities, and the books don't give a clear picture of monotheism. As to belief in an orthodox Christian doctrine, the only one I can come up with is forgiveness and/or mercy. Sam, Frodo and Bilbo were all merciful toward Gollum. Boromir sought forgiveness for trying to take the ring from Frodo. There is hope, throughout the book.

As much as I like the work of Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea books, they aren't Christian. (Le Guin says that she is a Taoist.) There are certainly moral choices, and there is hope. But there is no evident belief in a monotheistic god, no relationship with such, and no prayer. And Ged isn't really a Christ-figure. He doesn't actually die, let alone die for someone else, although he does lose his magical abilities in saving Earthsea. Ged's first archmage, Nemmerle, does die, repairing damage that a younger Ged has done, but he really didn't die for Ged, but for his task, to preserve the equilibrium of Earthsea. And death, itself, is problematic. The dead go into the Dry Land, a realm where they seem to just sort of wander around forever, although a wizard with great power can summon their spirits, apparently temporarily. (See this review, on Le Guin's web site, which says a little about the Dry Land, and about Le Guin's Taoism.) The Dry Land is an alternative to orthodox Christian doctrine. There is no heaven, and no hell, in Earthsea.

Thanks for reading. This made me think, and maybe it will do the same for someone else.

Added June 16, 2012: E. Stephen Burnett, of the Speculative Faith blog, has written a post entitled Define 'Christian Speculative Story.' The Speculative Faith blog is indispensable for persons interested in the intersection of Christianity and fantastic literature. I wish that Burnett, and the other authors, would pay less attention to fiction written and marketed to evangelical Christians, and more to fiction which is marketed to a wider audience, but that's a quibble.


Martin LaBar said...

In a post
on Feb 14, 201
1, Rebecca Luella Miller, of Speculative Faith, includes a paragraph on what makes fiction Christian, which I'm stealing shamelessly:

Christian as an adjective describing fiction refers to the substance. As a given, Christian speculative fiction is written by a Christian, but not everything written by Christians qualifies as “Christian.” Rather some element of the story needs to be distinctly connected with what it means to be Christian. Perhaps the characters are predominantly Christian. The plot might revolve around something distinctly Christian. Or the themes may relate in a specific way to the Christian faith.

I thank her.

Marci said...

Several years ago, one of my daughters was in the homeschool high school Torrey Academy program developed by BIOLA University in La Mirada, Ca.
She wrote a paper on "What is Christian Literature?" She touched on some of the points about which you wrote... In her conclusion, she named "Winnie the Pooh" as an example of Christian literature. Sacrifice, hope, friendship, patience, love.... are propounded throughtout the stories.
I remember talking with her about whether or not there could be foul language, un-Biblical sexual relations and such in a "Christian" story. We decided a resounding "YES!!" "Read the Bible!!" we said. The taunting by Elijah as the wicked priests waited for their god to consume the sacrifice was crude!! And David's story...... enough said. Murder. Adultery. Lying. It's all there. The Bible unabashedly tells the story of the human condition with all it's ugliness - and with all it's consequences. And in it all, there is hope offered, sacrifice, undeserved love, redemption for helpless mankind.
In the end, that is what we decided to be the benchmark of "Christian" literature. There needs to be, at the very least, some kind of redemption held out if not actually realized.
I enjoy reading your blog.....

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks so much, Marci.

Winnie the Pooh? I'll have to think about that one, but she was probably right.

abijah said...

The best novel that i have read, Christian or otherwise, is C.S.Lewis'"That Hideous Strength." Written in the 1940s, it is as current as today. Although the story-line is fantastical, the reader will recognize our current struggle with Fabian socialism that was imported to America from England by Leftists during the 20th Century.

"That Hideous Strength" is a thought provoking and delightful reading experience at the same time, nearly impossible to put down.

Martin LaBar said...

I'm not so sure about the Fabian socialism, but perhaps you are right. It's a good book.

abijah said...

What political ideology would you suggest is represented? One could make a case for National Socialism as some have but NICE, the organization, is international, global in aspiration. It has the hallmarks of Marxism, don't you agree?

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, abijah. I'm not well versed in political philosophy. I'd just say that N.I.C.E. is evil, creating a nightmare on earth.

abijah said...

You're right of course, N.I.C.E. is Evil but you are seasoned in the very community of which N.I.C.E was the brainchild. Remember the discussions that members of that same academic community had; it discussions of which you may have participated in during your career. Evil, is not amorphous; it presents a particular false face. C.S. Lewis was a don who knew that community well and he crystallized some of its fundamental tenants in the principals of his novel. But I shouldn't presume to teach the professor; i am still a student despite my age.

Martin LaBar said...

I know next to nothing about literary criticism, or the political and social history of the UK.


abijah said...

U.K. aside, i hope you are politically informed and active in U.S. politics, as a Christ follower, i think it a serious sin not to be in the struggle for the heart and soul of America today to the extent you are able, at least in prayer and support of Christian candidates such as Michele Bachmann and others.

America is under judgment. We need a Third Great Awakening and another George Whitefield. We need God's Grace to breath over the land and give us the spirit of humble repentance and fervent prayer as 2Chronicles 7:14 directs. We must, with Daniel the O.T. Prophet confess our sins and the sins of our nation that His Mercy and Grace might restore America as a godly nation to His glory and the propagation of the Greatest Message ever given to man, the Eternal Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Martin LaBar said...

I agree that the US (and other countries) are pretty sinful.

I'm not sure that Old Testament prophecies about Israel apply directly to the US (or other 21st century countries). I am sure that a lot of individual people in my nation, the US, need to repent.

Thanks for your comment.

abijah said...

Since you are unsure that Old Testament prophesies to Israel are relevant for us today, please consider the New Testament admonition by the Holy Spirit through the Apostle to the non-Jews, St. Paul: "ALL Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine(teaching), for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work." (2Timothy 3:16,17)(NKJ)

abijah said...

"If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we (Christians) confess our sins, He (Christ) is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we (Christians) have not sinned, we make Him (Christ) a liar, and His word is not in us." (1John 1:8-10) (NKJ)

abijah said...

So, who is responsible for the wretched state and impending demise of our nation, the godless socialists, the atheists, the immoral? God lays the sin squarely on those who believe in Him and bear His name but have been compromised by habitual sin and rebellious disobedience to His command to proclaim His Gospel to all men everywhere and to make disciples. Jesus, the Christ, will not bless the partially obedient or the lessor of the wicked. He is thrice Holy and abhors sin. The Lord will not honor the timid, the cowardly, the believer that is ashamed or embarrassed by Him. He will vomit out of His mouth the believer who has grown cold or tepid in love and zeal for Him. These are America's grievous and mortal sins for which judgment is presently falling.

abijah said...

"IF my people(Jew or Christian), which are called by My name, shall humble themselves and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then I will hear from Heaven, and will forgive their sin and will heal their land." (2Chronicles 7:14)(NKJ)

"Blessed is the nation (Israel or America) whose God is the LORD."

Martin LaBar said...

If you will check 2 Chronicles 7, which you probably have, you will note that verse 15 says that the promise in verse 14 is for prayers made in (or at) Solomon's Temple. We must be careful to consider not just isolated scripture, but scripture in context. There's nothing in that passage about Christians, or the US.

I have no doubt that God judges, and blesses, individuals in 2011, and perhaps nations, too, or that, for whatever reasons, the US has been a blessed nation, but the New Covenant seems to relate much more to, maybe entirely to, the relationship of the individual to God. The Old Covenant was much more about one particular nation, the nation of Israel. (God blessed and judged individuals then, too, of course.) There is not a lot about nations in the New Testament.

Thanks for your comments.

Martin LaBar said...

P. S. This post was supposed to be about fantastic literature, and was an attempt to describe Christian fantastic literature.

I don't wish for the comments on it to continue any further into the area of politics/civil religion/something else, but was trying to respectfully respond to you, Abijah.

I'd rather that further comments on this post be about the main subject matter of the post. In fairness, to you, however, I will allow you to respond to my previous comment on 2 Chronicles 7:15, if you wish to.


abijah said...

You are correct that context is important, not only the immediate context but the context of the whole counsel of God, the Bible. Scripture interprets scripture: the New Testament interprets the Old Testament. The plain words of God are to be taken for their plain meaning unless indicated otherwise.

2Chronicles 7:14 applies to non-Jewish Christians as well as Messianic Jews today. Take God at His word when He says through St.Paul in 2Corinthians 1:20: "For ALL THE PROMISES OF GOD IN HIM ARE YES, AND IN HIM AMEN..." ALL means ALL unless words have no meaning. The promises of 2Chronicles apply to Christians in America today as they did to Old Testament Israel. See Ephesians 2:11-13 for further clarification and expansion.

abijah said...

In the history of the world, there never has been a non-Jewish nation as great,as good, or as blessed by God as the American nation and there never will be again. America has been lifted up by the Lord Jesus Christ with abundance and blessings above all other nations because America was unashamedly a Christian nation (See the Trinity Decision of the U.S. Supreme Court 1898).

Today, America is imploding with breathtaking speed, everyone of America's institutions is failing. The political establishment is corrupt or ineffective, confused, desultory, and casting about for solutions. There are good men and women doing yeoman service to preserve America but they see only the symptoms and not the mortal wound. The preservation and exceptionalism of America has always been Jesus Christ, the Living Lord. It has never been the inherent qualities of its citizens or its Constitution.

abijah said...

Thank you Martin LaBar for allowing a final comment. If you wish to continue a substantive discussion of genuine Christianity over mere nominative, cultural, or liberal faux Christianity on another page of your website, let me know. Your servant in Christ Jesus, abijah.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Abijah.

I'll let your remarks stand without further comment.

I'm sorry, but I don't wish to get into an on-line discussion primarily centered on politics. I don't believe I am particularly called to do that.