This past week I stumbled upon an article concerning Christian writers in the 21st century. The subject of the post essentially asks the question, given originally by a New York Times’ article, of why there is so little, if any, good contemporary Christian fiction. Christian fiction, so goes the article, has lately been focused on either writing historical or fantasy novels, and the repercussions are that no one can seem to point to any good example of a contemporary, twenty-first century novel with Christian themes written by a Christian author. Now, I am not one to comment on whether or not this beast actually exists because I don’t read any contemporary fiction. However, given the truth of this claim, it prompted me to consider a few reasons why this may be a current trend. I will do so by discussing two older essays.
I believe one word could easily clarify the issue: morality. The Christian writer who wants to write a realistically modern novel, is not only shackled with the above problems, he also has to balance the tough issue of morality. Either we feel we must compromise our own beliefs and write a novel purely directed to a subculture of society, or we write a novel displaying sin (as does our world).
This debate, I found, actually goes back at least to the nineteenth century. Shortly after I read the above article I alluded to, I read two essays concerning children’s fantasy works in the nineteenth century. That they consider children’s fantasy and not contemporary fiction means they may not translate perfectly, but I think we can still get a lot out of them for our purposes. The first was George MacDonald’s tremendous article “The Fantastic Imagination” (1893), and the second was Charles Dickens’ “Frauds on the Fairies” (1853). Dickens believed that the fairy tales
must be preserved in their simplicity, and purity, and innocent extravagance, as if they were actual fact. Whosoever alters them to suit his own opinions, whatever they are, is guilty, to our thinking, of an act of presumption, and appropriates to himself what does not belong to him (emphasis mine).
The novel idea I discovered for myself in this statement is the idea that fairy tales should be told “as if they were actual fact.” The statement almost seems unnecessary. Who would write a story as if it wasn’t fact? But the author who intends to stick with this ideal during his writing confines himself in ways other authors would not be able to. The best example I can think of would, of course, come from Dickens himself. The Pickwick Papers were written as fact: Nothing that occurs within the action of the plot is moralized by the narrator. Certainly, the narrator considers Mr Pickwick as morally superior to Alfred Jingle (who wouldn’t?), but he never comments on the action of the plot. He never feels a need to explain to the reader that what is happening is either good or bad because he is bound: he is bound to writing only the facts as they occurred, anything else would be a lie. The minute he moralizes, the humor dies.
I believe the modern Christian writer can take some of this wisdom with them in their own writing. In order for the world we create to come alive, we must give that world some room to breathe. We must take a step back from our own prejudices and beliefs and write as if we believe what we’re writing actually happened. If we remember this, we can put aside our morals for just a second and let our characters rule the world we gave them.
MacDonald’s essay is actually about much more than the issue I am currently tackling, but he primarily makes note of the difference between natural law and moral law.
The natural world has its laws… but they themselves may suggest laws of other kinds, and man may, if he pleases, invent a little world of his own, with its own laws; for there is that in him which delights in calling up new forms — which is the nearest, perhaps, he can come to creation…
In the moral world it is different: there a man may clothe in new forms, and for this employ his imagination freely, but he must invent nothing… it would be wicked to write a tale representing a man it called good as always doing bad things, or a man it called bad as always doing good things: the notion itself is absolutely lawless. In physical things a man may invent; in moral things he must obey — and take their laws with him into his invented world as well.
MacDonald switches tones from this point in the essay, but this initial point is important to juxtapose with Dickens’ previous statement. Dickens felt that including moral judgments on specific issues into the stories (such as prohibition) was contrary to the point of the fairy tale. This does not mean that he thought their should be no morality whatsoever. It is the difference between writing an anti-abortion story and a story that merely shows (doesn’t tell) that life is a beautiful gift. It is the difference between the alcoholic cynic “getting saved” and the alcoholic cynic laying his life down for another ( a la Sydney Carton). Both are moral, but one is moralizing while the other has the potential to be unique and original.
MacDonald’s wisdom on the issue is extremely important. If a writer wishes to escape from natural law, “it must not… be imagined that they desire escape from the region of law. Nothing lawless can show the least reason why it should exist, or could at best have more than an appearance of life.” When we get rid of moral law in our stories, they eventually crumble as any sensible world needs some fundamental moral laws to abide by in order to survive. Any story that is written will have a moral baseline of sorts that it cannot escape. The challenge of the Christian writer is not to preach that morality to his audience but to show it to them. His call is different than the preachers, for he has the rare chance to show his audience Christ through unique stories. To display the gospel and various Christian themes in unique ways should be a sense of endless joy for the Christian writer. It is a shame that our culture does not seem to have this, and perhaps it means some of us should stop writing petty little blog posts and finally get to work.