Monday, December 27, 2021

Anonymous Asks (177)

“How does one write effectively about Christianity in a work of fiction?”

The Christian faith has been a defining feature of my life so long that I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of it at some level, even if it was only that I didn’t like the pews in church because my feet couldn’t reach the floor, or that my parents didn’t approve when I got down and crawled between them during the service. My childhood reading was full of “Christian” literature, from the too-saccharine adventures of the Sugar Creek Gang to the memorable spiritual analogies of C.S. Lewis’s children’s books.

Later in life I developed a taste for detective fiction and sci-fi, and discovered that secular writers have their own reasons for depicting Christians and their faith in one light or another.

As a child, I quickly tired of fiction written specifically for the Christian demographic. Partly, I suspect, this had to do with the quality of the writing. Niche markets allow artists and writers to sell their work to an audience already invested in a common worldview, many of whom are willing to sacrifice literary quality for a little in-group affirmation. This is especially the case with children’s books since the purchaser is rarely the consumer. Well-intentioned Christian parents are just trying to find something wholesome they can give their kids to read. They are not exactly looking for Dostoevsky.

Preaching to the Choir

But another big turn-off for me about fiction written by Christians was its leaden preachiness. Long before I knew how to analyze plot structures, I could instinctively sense when The Message was about to drop, and learned to scoot by it to get back to the action.

That was then, this is now. It may be that today’s novelists writing for the Christian market have honed their craft and learned to show, not tell. I couldn’t tell you. I haven’t picked up a work of Christian-ized fiction in decades, so it wouldn’t be fair of me to carp about current trends. But I will note that the tendency to turn off a potential audience by pounding the pulpit is not by any means restricted to Christian writers of fiction. Secular writers are often just as painfully obvious in proselytizing their own views as Christians writing ineptly about ours.

This, I think, is the biggest pitfall in effectively writing about faith in a fictional world: a near-uncontrollable compulsion to start preaching to the choir. Christians writing for Christians have to resist the temptation to sermonize rather than just tell a good story, while agnostics and atheists writing about Christians are well advised to avoid using their characters as a platform for promoting derogatory opinions about the faith to audiences which are largely secular — at least, if they wish to avoid obvious cliches or retain any appearance of objectivity.

“Pretty Arrogant”

A typical example of preaching secularism to the secular from a interior monologue by Norwegian crime fiction writer Jo Nesbo:

“It’s pretty arrogant, calling all other gods, apart from the one you’ve come up with, idols. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Every dictator’s command to his subjects, of course. The funny thing was that Christians couldn’t see it themselves, they didn’t see the mechanism, the regenerative, self-fulfilling, self-aggrandising aspect which meant that a superstition like this could survive for two thousand years, and in which the key — salvation — was restricted to those who were fortunate enough to have been born in a space of time which was a merest blink in the eye of human history, and who also happened to live on the only little bit of the planet that ever got to hear the commandment and were able to formulate an opinion about the concise sales pitch (‘paradise?’).”

Objective this is not. It’s clunky and labored, not to mention spectacularly misinformed. Worse, it goes absolutely nowhere, develops no character, establishes no plot point, and reinforces no theme. It’s just dropped in there out of the blue. There’s no reason for it to exist beyond the writer’s need to express his own prejudices and virtue-signal his ethical superiority.

Out of the Mouths of Priests

Now, at least when Lee Child has his Jack Reacher character reflect on his own atheism, as has happened more than once in that series, there is a plausible storyline reason for it: Reacher’s body count is off the charts, and the obvious ease-of-conscience with which he dispatches anyone who stands in his way demands some explanation preferable to sociopathy. Atheism works: it’s a worldview in which other living beings are no more than sacks of meat.

Still, even Child can’t resist taking the occasional gratuitous and misinformed whack at the Christian faith, this one coming, of all things, out of the mouth of an “Anglican priest”:

“The correct title is the Revelation of Saint John the Divine. Most of the original is lost, of course. It was written in ancient Hebrew or Aramaic, and copied by hand many times, and then translated into Koine Greek, and copied by hand many times, and then translated into Latin, and copied by hand many times, and then translated into Elizabethan English and printed, with opportunities for error and confusion at every single stage. Now it reads like an acid trip. I suspect it always did. Possibly all the translations and all the copying actually improved it.”

The failures of research and strange conclusions are numerous: Child’s priest has gotten the book’s title wrong and the statement about most of the original being lost (it’s ALL lost, but that’s a non-issue). Moreover, his point about how many times Revelation was translated and copied by hand applies equally to every first century document ever written, assuming his critique actually made sense, which it doesn’t. It is the very frequency of recopying and translating which makes it easier for experts to accurately reconstruct an ancient original. (See yesterday’s post for an explanation of how that works.)

Redeeming Features

To Child’s credit, in this case there actually is a plot-related reason to be talking about the book of Revelation. Nor is it terribly out of character for an Anglican priest to be blithely unconcerned about the integrity of scripture. But the metamessage is still that Christians are horribly naive about the basis for their beliefs. It’s not a flattering portrayal of the faith.

Child also has a penchant for creating villainous characters out of crazy, murderous Christians. Part of this is almost a political necessity: any editor working for a major publisher in our days of cancel culture would instantly nix a plot in which the villains are crazy, murderous Muslims, no matter how many of the latter group actually exist. That said, there are plenty of clues in Child’s writing to suggest he doesn’t think much of the Christian faith, and doesn’t expect his readers to either.

There are a few exceptions to this across-the-board negativity about the faith in the works of secular writers. James Lee Burke has a series about a river-baptized, moralistic-but-likable lawyer, while John Sandford has one about a detective from a loving Christian family who retains a belief in God while not subscribing to everything his parents do. Both protagonists are severely flawed people in one way or another, but their defects are not a product of their backgrounds or their beliefs. If anything, they are a product of failing to live up to worthy ideals. Such portrayals are effective in that they are not obvious message fiction directed either for or against Christianity. The characters simply are who they are. Their personal situations and foibles are not used as some kind of snide metacommentary on the validity of the Christian faith.

Effective Writing

Short answer, whether you are coming from a secular or Christian perspective yourself, if you want to write fictional stories inhabited by Christian characters, they need to be plausible rather than caricatured. A Christian character can’t simply exist to give the writer opportunity for a random polemic, obvious info dump or a conveniently-timed explanation of the way of salvation. They don’t have to be perfect by any stretch — Christians generally are not — but it would be nice to see a little evidence of shame or guilt when a “Christian” in a modern novel does something wildly out of sync with the actual teachings of Christ and the apostles.

That holds true for characters written by Christians as well as those which are not.

No comments :

Post a Comment