I review Christian books, mostly nonfiction ones but I do get a Christian Fiction novel or two each month. Occasionally I’ll get one that I enjoy, and frequently I’ll give 3 or 4 stars just because I know the author means well and it’s not too terrible. However, most of the time I’m just not impressed. There are certain flaws that routinely come up with Christian Fiction books, things which seem to be trends that make the books predictable or one-dimensional.
However, most people aren’t interested in long lists of everything being done wrong. It’s usually more effective to talk about what could be done better than to focus the entire discussion complaining about what’s being done poorly. Therefore, I’m doing a series about traits I would like to see more of in Christian Fiction, thus addressing flaws in a more constructive way.
The Hard Choice to Do Good
Writers frequently comment that it’s hard to portray goodness in a compelling way within stories. Matthew Dickerson has argued this is one of the things that makes C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series so good – Lewis has a way of making goodness compelling and attractive in a story, something very few writers pull off well.
I would humbly suggest that part of the problem is too many Christian writers don’t practice the traits that Lewis used to make goodness interesting.
Typically, Christian Fiction novels feature characters who face challenges, but the challenges are not very big in the long run. For example, Melody Carlson’s novel The Happy Camper is about a woman named Dillon who breaks up with her pathetic and self-centered boyfriend and then visits her grandfather to take care of him for a while. Dillon then quarrels with her self-centered mother over building a garden on the grandfather’s farm property, and her choice to retrofit an old trailer.
Essentially, the conflict in the story just boils down to spats and arguments with antagonists who neither very intelligent, nor very complex nor very interesting. Granted, The Happy Camper is a romance novel, so one doesn’t expect extreme conflicts or Hannibal Lecter-level devious villains. However, even when compared to great books in its own genre (such as Jane Austen’s romance novels), this book doesn’t give Dillon much challenge. Her choice to do the right thing isn’t particularly hard, especially when many people in the story (with the exception of her mother) immediately support her decision once they hear about it.
In contrast, Lewis tended to write stories where the heroes struggle to do the right thing.
Sometimes this is because the right thing is something not many other people understand, meaning they run the risk of being ridiculed. In Prince Caspian, the youngest of the Pevensie children sees Aslan and has to convince the others before they submit to Aslan’s plan and help the Narnians overcome their enemies.
In The Silver Chair, Eustace and Jill have to go with one guide to find a lost prince, with no help because the king has given up on the prince’s fate and decreed against anyone else looking for him.
In Perelandra and That Hideous Strength, a middle-aged academic is recruited as the primary warrior to fight supernatural evil beings trying to take over planets. As the academic comments to a friend in the first chapter of Perelandra, “‘You are feeling the absurdity of it. Dr. Elwin Ransom setting out single-handed to combat powers and principalities.”
Other times, the right thing may be something others understand, but it’s a hard task which requires rising to a challenge, admitting mistakes and possibly suffering a little before the hero can get over it. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Peter struggles to summon the coruage to kill the wolf which attacks his sisters. Then in Prince Caspian, Peter must get over his pride and submit to Aslan before he can behave like a king and help the Narnians. In Perelandra, Ransom realizes he must kill his foe, and although he succeeds he ends up getting a wound on his foot that never stops bleeding.
In short, being good is always a bit of a challenge in Lewis’ work. Frequently the heroes find they must make what seem at first like absurd or counter-intuitive choices in their journey to do right.
Someone may comment at this point that while this point makes sense for speculative fiction like Lewis’ fantasy novels, it’s very different in stories that have realistic settings. Speculative fiction can have supernatural beings show up to explain things or have bizarre situations (fighting dragons, solving riddles) that force the hero to themselves up to
What about stories that don’t force the hero to go on quests or face supernatural beings who tell them what they’re doing wrong?
While it’s true that many realistic novels don’t put the hero through the seam kind of trials that a speculative novel might, the best realistic novels usually find other ways to portray goodness as something complicated or unusual.
For example, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a classic book, arguably the first really American novel. Part of what makes it such a compelling book is it creates a lead character who find himself in a situation where he’s not sure what he right thing is to do, and that leaves him conflicted throughout the novel.
Huckleberry Finn’s problem is that he’s been raised to believe that slavery is good and that anyone who helps a slave escape his mate is under danger of damnation. Then, shortly after feeling his home, Huck meets up with an African-American acquaintance, Jim, who is fleeing the South.
On one occasion Jim talks about his plans to either come back after he gets his freedom to buy back his family from his former masters or to hire an abolitionist to free them. Huck feels conflicted about this information and almost turns Jim in before he decides that his loyalty to his friend is more important that following the rules he has been told to follow, even if he is risking Hell and damnation by doing so.
Braveheart screenwriter Randall Wallace argues in his book Living the Braveheart Life that this is one of the great scenes in literature, and I would agree. And precisely what makes it work is that it’s a scene where doing the right thing is difficult. In a sense, Huckleberry Finn is all about Huck making what feels like an absurd choice, the choice society has told him to never make.
This goes back to the point from the post about goodness and absurdity: we are all inherently broken, and often a little bit foolish. Living in a way that truly embodies wisdom means going against the path which everyone naturally (i.e. in their own sin) wants to follow.
Jay Y. Kim talks about this idea in his book Analog Church. He focuses on the idea that Christian communities have always been about physical presence, being together and living together in community, which runs against the way so many of us want to live in a digital world. As he builds his case for this idea, Kim notes there is something essentially subversive about Christian communities. They attract people because Christians live in ways that run counter to what mainstream culture says, but bring life. As Kim puts it in one chapter, the way the Book of Acts describes the church as “countercultural, subversive, selfless, generous.”
Goodness is always a bit subversive. In creative works, describing goodness as the somewhat subversive choice makes for interesting conflict and shows the kind of resiliency that good characters need to have.