For the longest time, I’ve been wanting to publicly respond to an abysmal piece of work I saw on Fox News some years ago, when the first of the new Chronicles of Narnia movies came out. Thankfully, it is also on-topic with our present discussion, and it gives us another case-in-point to illustrate some of the principles I brought up last week. The article asked, essentially, whether The Chronicles were inherently Christian or if they were just simply good literature. If the latter, that might explain their massive popularity. So what of it?*
Before we go further, we need to pause and look at the “Christian fiction” question from the other way round. So far, I’ve been talking about it from the inside-out: from the author’s internal efforts to the finished product. Here, we need to consider the outside-in: Can an author’s work be objectively described as “Christian” whether or not he wrote intending his work to fall into the boundaries of that specific genre? This is important since, as was pointed out in the comments to my last article, C. S. Lewis never intentionally wrote for the “Christian fiction” market–he just wrote.
In short–if we have a proper understanding of what “Christian fiction” means in this context–I believe we can come to a conclusion about Lewis. Insomuch that it is possible, I believe we can reasonably define Lewis (and J. R. R. Tolkien) as good examples of “Christian authors.” I would argue that “Christian fiction” (as a descriptive term rather than a method) is literature that is written through a Christian/Biblical worldview and therefore contains identifiable Christian/Biblical themes and ideas. It need not have a particular audience in mind, does not have to be explicitly Christian, nor is it required to be evangelistic in nature. Also (and we’ll talk about this in another post) it need not be labeled or marketed as anything more than a good story. Viewed from this perspective, Lewis is clearly defined as a Christian author, and therefore the original question would seem legitimate–at least at first.
My problem with the article from Fox was that it was based entirely on a false dilemma. The books and the movie either had to be one thing or the other; they must be either “good Christian fiction” or they must be simply “good fiction.” The implication was that if it were the former, then it could not appeal to a non-Christian audience. If it were the latter, then, it must somehow be less Christian than otherwise. I see no reason why it can’t be both at once.
Part of what makes good literature good is that it hits you with something that is fundamentally powerful and meaningful. Christianity has proven from the very beginning of its existence that it does just that. Its themes and ideas have moved people from all social classes, economic backgrounds, and ideological origins: from emperors to slaves and capitalists to communists. People have been literally willing to die in defense of the Truths they’ve learned from it.
Therefore, I don’t think we should be surprised to see that good, intelligent Christian literature contains some of the most powerful ammunition available to an author. There need be no distinction between “good literature” and “Christian literature” since, Christians have the ability to write uniquely powerful stories that appeal to very broad audiences.
That said, we also know that when people reject the ideas of Christianity, they tend to do so viscerally. Christians have been (and continue to be) murdered by the thousands over the centuries for holding to their faith. Even here in America, we see attempts to systematically bar religious (read: Christian) groups from equal use of public facilities, which implies that they are viewed by some as inherently unequal in comparison to secular groups as much as Plessy v.s. Ferguson meant that African Americans were of lesser value when compared to whites.
My point is that not everyone will be moved in the same way. If Christian themes provoke incredible pathos, they can also provoke outright, unthinking hatred. If you are a Christian who writes fiction and does it right, you can’t expect to get universal approval; in fact you should expect to be hated, mocked, and ostracized by at least some portion of the population.** The trick is learning to write stories that are so good that you give people as little justification as possible for doing so, and then finding a way to deal emotionally with the dissenters who are left.
To a certain extent, I think this last point may explain why so many people have accepted the definition of “Christian” fiction (as defined in my opening post in this series). For the Christians, it provides them with a protected, isolated haven where they can write without having to face their toughest critics (or, indeed, any serious criticism at all). For the non-Christians, it allows them to summarily ignore/write off any literature that might serious challenge their worldview (ironic, when they often pride themselves on their tolerance and diversity).
In the end, it all reinforces our original calling: Write from the “whole cast” of our minds and experience, and do it right. There’s no reason why we can’t write books and stories that are “good fiction,” without being any less “Christian.”
Next Week: Responding to an objection–“I can’t be a ‘Christian pizza maker,’ can I?”
*Unfortunately, it’s been several years since I read the article, and now have no idea where to find it. You’ll just have to take my word for it and, as an historian, I’ll just have to cringe at not having a footnote!
**We have to be very careful how we handle this point in particular. It is very tempting to simply write off all criticism as unjust attacks on our faith. Also, even with the ones that actually are, it doesn’t follow that all of what a person has to say is necessarily wrong because some of it is. On the contrary, the truth might well be that we’re just writing garbage. We have to build up a thick enough skin to take our critics seriously and learn how to improve from them, without letting them dominate our authorial lives.
Other Posts in the Christian as Author Series