Between choices in formulaic, unrealistic themes of mainstream Christian fiction and secular shelves filled with fifty shades of crapola, one might well ask, why bother? Where might we turn for imaginative, enriching fiction—the kind of stories that propel us headlong on exhilarating journeys while resonating with some measure of depth? As corny it sounds—and it’s a hard row to hoe convincing my students of this—there is an answer…in one word: literature. Yes, archaic, even arcane, been-around-the-block-and-up-around-the bend, ‘ol literature. But, one may further ask, what defines literature, sets it apart from other kinds of writing and what’s so great about it anyway? Let’s address these two pressing questions by first looking at what literature is not.
Ok, then…what about literature? What’s the deal there? The primary difference between the two genres is that literature has at its core deep, resonant meaning…what some call “author intent” and others refer to as the “message” a piece of literature is attempting to convey to readers. We’re talking about, of course, theme. Literary stories can be every bit as enjoyable and engaging as those from popular fiction but works of literature dig more deeply to concern themselves with the problems and ills of society with meaningful characters and plot developments free of gratuitous nonsensical eye candy. This is not to say that literature is free of the ugly facts of the world around us—violence, profanity, and coarse behavior—because it is certainly not. In literature, however, the portrayal of these things has meaning and contributes to both story and theme. In other words, they are reflections of authentic life—often directly from author experience—that are depicted to help us understand the depth of the problems facing us and the profound need for change.
Literature, therefore, is “about” both awareness and change. Where politicians strive to alter behavior and refine thinking through creation or abolishment of laws and pastors draft sermons on both fire and ice, writers look around them, pick up their pens, and write about the things that infuriate and inspire them. Further, these problems often concern fundamental, enduring flaws deeply rooted in human sin nature: wrath, hate, persecution, greed, and the other shortcomings of ours—those eternal problems that, despite being sometimes buried for a while in shallow, unmarked graves, always manage to reemerge with a new name and fresh face from generation to generation. This, as you have no doubt surmised, is why literature texts are filled with stories decades and centuries old, because the problems of the ages long past are still our problems and, presumably, always will be, even when we, ourselves, are as long gone as the writers of the now ancient stories and the cultures they addressed. In the simplest of terms, literature, therefore, is entertainment with teeth—long sharp teeth, maybe barbed.
Now we’re getting somewhere, you might be thinking at this point. If I’m going to read I might as well be moved, stirred, if you will, but what if I prefer non-secular issues, problems unique or close to the hearts of Christians? Good question. This is the point where many of us turn to Christian retailers or to the shelves of secular book stores containing Christian sections. As we know, fine examples of inspirational nonfiction line such shelves—works of truth where author narratives inform and inspire from experiences in their lives and from the lives around them. Understand that I, a former student of creative nonfiction, am not knocking the value of this kind of writing, but what of those of us who long for imaginative tales to carry us away, over, and beyond, as the fiction of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien does? Unfortunately, aside from Lewis—Tolkien is rarely found in Christian-related contexts of this sort—and a handful of popular contemporary Christian fiction writers, many past writers of faith—or who considered faith-based issues and perspectives—simply aren’t recognized by traditional Christian publishers, critics, or bookstores as “Christian writers” because they did not follow the formulaic, predictable industry customs. So, where do we turn?
Though iconic authors from our past touch upon aspects of faith in their work, and while it is certainly true that through the practice of discernment we can find God’s truth and beauty in even the most secularly-grounded literature, authors like Paul Bunyan, G.K. Chesterton, Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Sayers, Walker Percy, Frederick Buechner, just to name a few directly focus on faith-based issues. However, since we won’t see these names in our local Lifeway stores or in the Christian, Faith, or Inspirational sections of secular book stores, we must, therefore, dig deeply on our own for meaningful reads like these. But don’t worry…the digging will be joyful and the mining rich.
The point is that the true, good, and beautiful is out there in print and, once we winnow the chaff, as we have already, hopefully, begun to do in the paragraphs above, there is no excuse for failing to reap the rich harvest just waiting for us to pick up and devour. Even for those of us (my hand rises, too, with this group) who feel that we have tapped the well dry and become resigned to only re-reading our favorite authors, the challenge remains: they’re out there, waiting patiently. The front doors are ajar and inside, by a fragrant fire in the hearth, is a cup of something warm and a pillow for our feet.