A grammar of images and a logic of plot mimic the mysteries of life.
Quid hinieldus cum Christo? “What has Ingeld to do with Christ?” asked an eminent eighth-century educator when informed that monks in England were listening at mealtime not to saints’ lives and Scripture but to tales Many evangelical Christians, it may seem Germanic heroes as Ingeld the Heathobard.
Many evangelical Christians, it may seem, still share Alcuin’s sentiments about the reading of fiction: that it is a waste of a Christian’s time and should have no part in a life ordered by God’s Word. Fiction’s Christian apologists have always used as one of their weightiest arguments the pervasive use of narrative forms by the divinely inspired penmen of the Scriptures—indeed, by Christ himself—a characteristic of the Bible recently called again to our attention in CHRISTIANITY TODAY by Leland Ryken (Oct. 5, 1979).
A corollary, of course, to the hesitancy about reading fiction, is the hesitancy to write it. We do not have many outstanding Christian novelists among us, and most of the important writers who are confessing Christians seem to be Roman Catholics. Much of the so-called Christian fiction available in religion bookstores can still be called, in Henry Zylstra’s phrase, “Religious Pollyanna.” To have a Christian culture that promotes and accepts the writing of fiction about itself, evangelicals must first be persuaded that the writing and reading of fiction is in fact a legitimate enterprise; they must be taught how to read fiction as fiction, and how to tell the good from the bad.
But perhaps such proddings of the evangelical world are happily no longer needed. Two recent issues of CHRISTIANITY TODAY contain (1) an appreciative review of a new biography of Walker Percy, the Louisianan Catholic writer whose novels the reviewer highly recommends; (2) the fine article, already mentioned, by Leland Ryken, who calls to our attention the narrative mode of the Bible; (3) an appreciative review of a recent novel by Shirley Nelson, written, says the reviewer, Harold Fickett, “out of sympathy for the evangelical world” but without sentimentality and with striking imaginative verisimilitude.
Nevertheless, there is still a need for informed and healthy debate of the subject. It remains true, by and large, as Fickett states in his review, that “the evangelical world remains uncharted territory for the novelist. Though it contains and accounts for the way of life of many Americans, writers have rarely tried to describe this form of faith or its subcultures.” Ryken asks: “If the Bible uses the imagination as one way of communicating truth, should we not show an identical confidence in the power of the imagination to convey religious truth? If so, would a good starting point be to respect the story quality of the Bible in our exposition of it?” However, while suggesting practical implications for preaching and teaching, Ryken does not suggest that the narrative mode of God’s revelation might have implications for the writing and reading of stories other than those in the Bible. But Fickett finds the Christian fiction writer’s art validated precisely by the story form of Scripture. He states in the introduction to his recent book of stories: “The fiction writer can see himself as working within the tradition of biblical narrative, although he cannot claim divine inspiration. His task is simply to rework the old and ever-true story into new stories which take into account the present circumstances. His credentials consist solely in how well he does this” (Mrs. Sunday’s Problem and Other Stories, Revell, 1979).
What reasons can be given for the Christian community’s disregard for worthy fiction? Zylstra, referring to age-old objections to fiction, speaks to the Christian parent irked to find his child with his nose in a novel: “If only you could make fiction serve practical, or moral, or religious purposes you could honor it, but that since you cannot you wish your boy would read something useful, improving, or edifying. You suspect that novels, when they are innocent, are trivial. At best, you feel, they constitute mere entertainment.” In similar terms, Fickett speaks of the “practical person” who “often does not like fiction. He finds life difficult, and when he reads, he wants help; he wants advice on his marital problems or counsel about his career. If he is a Christian, he wants to know how he can improve his spiritual life. He is looking for answers.”
I would observe that the Protestant community has had in general a notion of Christian fiction as fiction that illustrates ideas previously and systematically articulated by theologians and theorists. We often judge fiction in the same way that we judge our life: by asking whether our experience matches up with a particular framework of theory or propositional doctrine, rather than asking whether our experience (and propositions about it) does justice to a plot, namely the divine narrative about history, with its climax on Calvary, of Creation, Fall, and Redemption. We have asked that fiction provide a self-satisfying and confirmatory experience for the reader, at the expense of allowing fiction to test theoretical formulations in a fictional crucible of people’s lives, or to be a mode in which the reader is asked to relive or experience vicariously the often painful “essential issues of existence” as an exercise to sharpen the reader’s perception of the religious character of human life.
Hence, as Malcoim Ross reminds us, we must not confuse “literature with apologetics. The Christian poem or novel is not a theological tract. Nor may one come to a critical judgment of a Christian writer by abstracting and counting his sound dogmatic utterances. The Christian writer is not a preacher. Nor is his [immediate] end the salvation of souls” (Poetry and Dogma, Rutgers University Press, 1954). We must remember, says Zylstra, “that a novel is a work of art, and that reading it is an aesthetic experience”; that is, an experience which, though not immediately useful, grants a certain engaged distance from which we may observe the affairs of human life.
Though I have spoken of Protestant notions, Flannery O’Connor has written similarly of the idea, among many in her own Roman Catholic community, that fiction-writing is a process of “beginning with Christian principles and finding the life that will illustrate them.” Like Fickett’s “practical person,” “we Catholics,” says O’Connor, “are very much given to the Instant Answer. Fiction doesn’t have any. It leaves us, like Job, with a renewed sense of mystery.” Both O’Connor and Fickett gently prod a public that wants fiction to work like nonfiction—by means of unambiguous statements and abstract propositions—as they propose anew fiction’s ability and responsibility to imitate life, which, for writers who are Christians, is an enterprise fraught with mystery.
If many among both Protestant and Catholic audiences share certain notions about fiction that make them unprepared to let fiction work on its own terms, we ought still to ask why most of the significant Christian fiction written in this century has come out of the Roman and other sacramental branches of Christendom. One could mention O’Connor, Walker Percy, François Mauriac, Georges Bernanos, Graham Greene, as well as those writers who have been adopted into the evangelical fold: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers. Why this is so is a question too complex to do justice to in a brief essay, but certain avenues of thought may be opened up. Literature, in some manner, is by its very nature sacramental and incarnational—always of necessity linking movements of the mind, soul, or spirit to concrete phenomena and tangible objects, always showing the action of grace in its flesh and blood manifestations.
One might expect that the attitudes and skills required to write and read fiction would be less foreign to the person versed in the sacramental tradition of the church. Likewise, the hesitancy of the Protestant tradition to attach the working of grace to anything too tangible, along with its alignment with systematic, propositionally articulated and rationally ordered theology, would cause hesitancy in placing too much trust in the efficacy of fiction to promote doctrine. But my intention is not to oversimplify the complicated web of motives and patterns of thought that constitutes the history of the several traditions in the Western church. For on the other hand, the Reformed tradition of my own upbringing called the scholastic tradition of the Roman Catholic Church legitimately to task for severing the connections between the realms of Nature and Grace, for promoting rational theology at the expense of the guidance of the eye of faith, and looked rather to the heritage of Calvinism for the more authentically sacramental union of sign and signified, of flesh and spirit, of earthly visibilia, and the Invisibilia Dei that nourishes the making of stories.
John E. Skillen is a doctoral candidate in English literature at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
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