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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

What is a Christian Novel?

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. But a description is not much easier than a definition.

Im avoiding two fundamental issues, namely what a novel is, or what Christianity is.

Heres my description. A Christian novel should include three things. First, some sort of important choice between good and evil. Second, there should also be evidence that a character has hope, beyond despair. Third, 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, namely that the story should illustrate some aspect of Christian faith, that the writing should avoid obscenity and profanity (she didnt 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 and fundamentalist Christian audience. Hunt has written a lot of that herself. Hunt writes Im sure youre 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 thats it.” Most faith fiction does involve a conversion, and some of the other aspects that Hunt mentions, but which aren't, for her, requirements. I think most faith fiction also includes a marriage, or points toward a forthcoming marriage. Like other types of fiction, faith fiction can be too formulaic. I personally prefer not to read most such books.

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 shes right about hope, although it doesnt seem to me that it would have to be realized within the novel, just a driving force for the characters. 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. Some of the best, and mainstream works of fantastic literature, such as those of Connie Willis, meet, or come close to meeting, the description above. Certainly, not all such novels meet that description.

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

Let me analyze 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.

Tolkiens The Lord of the Rings trilogy is not so obvious as the Narnia books. There are moral choices, such as Galadriels decision not to take the ring from Frodo, Denethors decision to put his own judgment above Gandalfs, and Sarumans decision to advance himself, rather than trying to defeat Sauron, all 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 a high deity or deities, and the books dont 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. The books do meet the description, although not as obviously as the Narnia books.

As much as I like the work of Ursula K. Le Guins Earthsea books, they arent 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 isnt really a Christ-figure. He doesnt actually die, let alone die for someone else, although he does lose his magical abilities in saving Earthsea. Geds first archmage, Nemmerle, does die, repairing damage that Ged had done, but he really didnt die for Ged, but, rather, because of his own task as archmage, which was to preserve the equilibrium of Earthsea. And death, itself, is problematic in these books. 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 temporarily. (See this review, on Le Guins web site, which says a little about the Dry Land, and about Le Guins Taoism.) The Dry Land is an alternative to orthodox Christian doctrine. There is no heaven, and no hell, in Earthsea.

The Speculative Faith blog is indispensable for persons interested in the intersection of Christianity and fantastic literature. E. Stephen Burnett, one of the regular contributors to that blog, has written a post entitled Define Christian Speculative Story. Rebecca Luella Miller, from the same blog, has written on “What Makes Fantasy Work? and, in the process, described what Christian Fantasy should be.

This post is somewhat (not much) revised from a previous one on the same subject. One reason for re-doing the post is that a commenter decided to enter into a rather lengthy dialog with me about matters that werent related to the post. Another reason is that a commenter on yesterdays post on the Speculative Faith blog said this:
There is a very popular argument that it is enough to love the antrhopomorphized [sic] abstract. That seeing an aspect of God’s love, grace, forgiveness, etc. in a speculative story is enough to sanctify that speculative story. Edward is like Jesus in his absolute love for Bella, Harry is like Jesus in his calling to save the world, Samwise is like Jesus in his willingness to carry his friend. I really…don’t think so.

I must agree. Seeing a Christ-figure in a story doesnt make it the story of Christ.

Thanks for reading. 

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Added March 26, 2013: Rebecca Luella Miller, of the Speculative Faith blog, which should be required reading for persons interested in serious reading, or writing, of fantastic literature, argues that all fiction has a purpose, underlying assumptions, and gives examples. It is only reasonable, she says, that Christian authors also have purposes and underlying assumptions.

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On March 17, 2014, I made some editorial changes.

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Shannon McDermott has posted, on the Speculative Faith blog, about What Isn't Christian Fiction. In other words, shes considering the opposite question. She says that resurrection (Gandalf, for one) doesnt make the person resurrected a Christ-figure. I agree, but Im not sure that Gandalf wasnt a Christ-figure.


Martin LaBar said...

I received an e-mail comment, as follows:

. . . author and . . . editor, [name] . . . says there is no such thing as a "Christian" novel, school, movie, etc, etc, etc,

He says that since the word Christian means Christlike, it can truly only be applied to people.

Just a bit of food for thought.

Not my idea - - - but I have pondered on it quite a bit.

My response is that, speaking grammatically, and even spiritually, the author mentioned is right. But we use the term as an adjective for things, a lot, and it's not likely to go away. (Christian art, music, also belong in the list above.)

What is really meant is a novel by a Christian, or a novel (or painting) with a Christian world-view, I guess, but it's easier to say "Christian music."

Martin LaBar said...

Speculative Faith has a recent post on this subject, with helpful comments (including one by me, suggesting that readers read this post!). The URL is here: