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.
Many people talk about some form of experience in their lives that was wonderful. They may say were blown away by it, awed by it, or overtaken (in a positive way) by it. It may come from nature. It may come from meeting someone (the sense of awed by a loved one or a lover). It may happen in a context of a religious service or a good book. Regardless of where it comes form, it seems to always have two basic components.
First, wonder is something good. We may be shocked by something horrible (the sight of blood, an obscene comment) but we would never call it a wonderful or wondrous experience.
Second, wonder is something outside us. We use phrase like “blown away” or “overtaken” to describe it, implying it was something outside us that came and affected us. We did not make it come or manufacture it from our own emotions. We did not choose when it came. While we can ignore it, we cannot make something wondrous stop being so. We cannot shut wonder off the way we shut off a television set.
Many have argued that wonder is one thing that indicates we are more than just physical beings. It serves no obvious survival purpose, and may be a taste of something greater that we yearn for: a connection with the divine. Therefore, Christian atuhors are often interesting in trying to capture this feeling in their stories. Melody Carlson has scenes of people being awed at beautiful rivers in her Inn at Shining Waters trilogy. Randy Alcorn creates an interesting little scene in his novel The Lord Foulgrin Letters where the main character and his son are walking through a park and are profoundly affected by seeing a deer.
However, usually these books don’t quite get close enough, because they don’t focus enough on the experience. They get into the scene a little, then the characters quickly start talking about what happened. The difficulty is that once you’re talking about the experience, you’re not having the experience. You’re analyzing what happened. You’re dissecting the experience, turning it into little bits of information that you can manipulate and examine from a distance. The moment you’re talking about your experience, you’ve gone past the scene to analyzing it. If you do that too quickly in a book, you ruin the effect. It suggests you’re not really comfortable with wonder, you’re only comfortable talking about it.
Generally, the storytellers who do the best job of capturing wonder create beautiful scenes and the characters don’t talk much about it, they just take part and react.
In Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, we have beautiful scenes of a soldier wandering in nature, enjoying what he sees and feels. He tells his superior that he’s “seen another world,” and says (apparently to God) “why should I be afraid to die? I belong to you.” In other words, the soldier is experiencing some sense of the divine in nature.
However, the soldier doesn’t ever say “sense of the divine” or use any such conventional religious language to describe his experience. He just explores, and the images of what he sees combined with his short comments about God make it clear what he’s talking about.
Spielberg does something similar with his sci-fi films. Roy Anker makes a compelling case in his book Catching Light that Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. essentially have the same theme: lost boys who seek a home, and experience something wondrous in their journeys to find that home. Roy Neary has a childlike sense of wonder from the beginning of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, his obsession with finding the aliens is filled with religious overtones. Paul Schrader, who wrote several early drafts of the movie’s script, even describes Neary’s UFO encounter as being like St. Paul meeting God on the road to Damascus. In E.T. Elliot is bitter about losing his father, but is still innocent and loving enough to believe in this strange little alien he meets (which arguably becomes a Christ figure throughout the film).
Neither of those films has characters who stop and say, “Ah, this is a spiritual quest.” Sure, there are scenes where the characters get close to using religious language. In Close Encounters one scientist argues that people are showing up the UFO sight because “they were invited,” which sounds very close to saying they have been called by God. In E.T., the scientist named “Keys,” talks about wanting to find aliens since he was a boy, suggesting he has a childlike wonder that Elliot and his family has (and which the more cynical controlling adults do not have).
But Spielberg never goes so far as to spell out the ideas. The scientists doesn’t start taking about divine calling and how aliens are calling people to the UFO site like God calling the Israelites to Mt. Sinai. Elliot doesn’t start talking with Keys about the wonder children see which adults often miss, and how that relates to Jesus’ teachings about becoming like little children to follow. Which is more or less exactly how those scenes would go in a Christian Fiction novel. Instead, Spielberg focuses on giving a really powerful experience of these ideas, leaving the audience to figure the ideas themselves and intellectualize it later. Consequently, his movies are often cited as giving a powerful experience of wonder.
Capturing wonder in a story requires a willingness to go fully into the experience, to let the audience be carried away by it and leave analysis for later. Otherwise, the story ends up being less than wonderful.