Christian Fiction, Part II: The Bubblegum Diet

What is Christian fiction? Does Doris Betts’s story, “Serpents and Doves” count? In it a dying, guilt-ridden man has a feverish conversation with the Devil that brings him to realize the salvation that has eluded him. Then there’s Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, wherein a priest is executed for refusing to renounce his faith. Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River is infused with grace, and its noblest character is a through-and-through Christian. Do any of these count as Christian fiction?

I suspect not. There’s cursing in them, for one thing. Greene’s book depicts sex in a prison cell. Plus his priest fathered a child. Each book has an edge to it, and perhaps that’s the best demarcation. Christian fiction seems to be a safe harbor for people who want no cursing, or sex, or difficult theological quandaries. It’s a place where the bad people are clearly bad, where the troubled find Jesus, the wicked get their comeuppance, and children have the wisdom of angels. It’s escapist literature, and as such it’s part of a long tradition. It’s the literary equivalent of bubble gum, only it’s sugarless, for those who care about the state of their spiritual teeth.

There’s nothing wrong with sugarless gum; the difficulty arises when one makes a steady diet of it. If one believes that reading is an important part of the thinking life, then what one reads is no trivial matter. I know some people — intelligent, well-meaning people — who believe that the end is reading itself. They’re happy that their adult children read, but when you delve into what their children are reading, it’s a bubble-gum banquet. The purpose of a literate life is not the steady gazing at lines of words all strung together in tight rows and bundles, but the engagement of the mind with ideas and events and struggles greater than oneself. It’s the interaction with ideas such that one’s life is richer, and more meaningful, so that one is better equipped to be a force in the world.

One gets none of that from bubble gum. And how sad is it, really, to elect for a bubble gum diet, and then to make it sugarless? If we are to let our minds stagnate, then at the very least, mightn’t we have a little fun doing so? Think about it: to be given these great gifts of prosperity, peace, and literacy, such that we have at our fingertips the brilliant thinking and composition of noble and ignoble souls alike, and then to read none of it. Doesn’t that seem awfully close to sin? And if it is, why not sin boldly? Read some Stephen King, for crying out loud. At least you can tell his characters apart.

That’s right, I’m suggesting that bad reading — and bad writing — is a sin. I’ll even go so far as to posit that there is a special library in hell, lined with Danielle Steele and Robert Ludlum books, where the damned are consigned to copy the books’ wretched dialogue over and over on endless spools of dry scratchy paper, with demons waiting nearby to lop off fingers whenever someone puts his punctuation on the outside of the quotation mark.

Keep in mind that I’m not speaking to people who’s intellectual capacity limits their ability to comprehend a Wendell Berry or Dorothy Sayers, a Chaim Potok or Flannery O’Connor. Those blessed souls stopped reading after I used the phrase “theological quandaries,” in the second paragraph. No, I’m talking to you, and to me, and most importantly, to each of us who is a parent (but more on that later). We have the capacity to read wonderful books, but we’ve trained our palate to crave bubble gum. Then we lie to ourselves, and say that because it’s sugarless, we are being good stewards of our minds. But sugarless gum produces a rot of a different sort, in the form of an absence of nourishment.

But enough for now. Next post I’ll dig a little deeper into why I think bad writing (and therefore bad reading) is a sin. And as your payoff for enduring my insufferable snootiness on this topic, I’ll direct you to some lists of wonderful books that wrestle with things that ought to matter to the thinking Christian.

Comments

  1. Deoxy

    I like your snootiness, actually – and that you’ve enabled comments again.

    “Those blessed souls” is, at times, so very true. I have felt, much of my life, that intelligence is a blessing to those near it, but a curse to those with it.

  2. Marc V

    I’ll second the kudos for comments. The blessing of intelligence comes when you seek God’s wisdom for application and the Spirit for understanding.

    My wife is “into” the Karen Kingsbury books and thinks she’s a genius. I don’t have the desire to pick them up. She was also into the LaHaye/Left Behind series, but lost steam (and time) at the end and never finished them up. I typically don’t feel a need for reading fiction, and if the mood hits I’ll re-read a Bradbury or van Vogt story.

    Your arguments on reading seem to echo what has been going on over at Christianity Today Movies. They review R-rated movies sometimes and get the inevitable “How can you be Christian and take in that garbage?!” response. Sin is sin and when you’ve committed one you’ve broken them all (at least that’s what Jesus said) so it can be difficult to rank them, i.e. violence is kinda OK but no sex.

    The main question: is the sin portrayed on the screen or on the pages entertaining/tittilating or informative? Yes, there’s sin in the world and people are doing it right and left. The problem comes when the sin is used as entertainment rather than fleshing out (sic) a character.

  3. Jared

    I’ve been feeling that frustration with Christian fiction (specifically fantasy/sci-fi) for a while now. They are books whose endings I know before I’ve finished the first chapter. Life, and faith, is never as simple as these books pretend.

    Two of my favorite authors are Dan Simmons (‘Hyperion’) and Alastair Reynolds (‘Chasm City’). Both ‘secular humanists’, yet their books are incredibly intelligent, and have given my faith more perspective than any ‘Christian’ fiction I’ve read.

  4. the wife

    Well,

    As a slowly recovering bubble gum, and then sugarless bubble gum, partaker I must heartily reccomend an author with perhaps some flavor and crunch to her vegetables and who makes the idea of salmon or talapia as delightful as the idea of steak. (Was that a little too abstract?)

    I have discovered, thanks to two dear friends, a wonderfully literature-like author, who haappens to weave into her work with incredible subtlety the living truth of a Christian and non-Christian worldview, Elizabeth Goudge. Her prose is remarkable and her insight into the human mind and soul so incredibly accurate and inviting such as to desire the words to be savored and cherished as opposed to consumed like the goilden arches french fries.

    Some are hard to come by so please go respectfully to your library and leave the cheap purchasable ones on the internet for me to continue to collect.

  5. Danielle

    The comments are back!!! I have to post before I read, just in case they leave again. Also, I SO enjoyed “The Storm” and it ranks up there with my all time favorite post of your’s, “A Whisper.” Thank you. Off to read the newest post..

    Giddy about comments,

  6. Jeri

    Thanks for this thoughtful set of posts. I teach high schoolers in a Christian school, and recall the difficulty in selecting “Christian fiction.” I’ve had to slog through book reports on books by nearly every bubble-gum writer on your local Christian bookstore’s shelves. And there’s the opposite madness, too: years ago we had a parent demand that we take out of our school library that awful book about the Witch and the Wardrobe!

    Surrounding kids with good words and good books is so important; no wonder parents are touchy about what their children read. Your hints about the role of parents to help their children be readers of delicious AND nutritious material gives me hope. Maybe this discussion could spark some much-needed clear and realistic thinking about choosing what to read. And what to provide for our kids.

    I’ve been lurking for a little while; glad to offer a response to your excellent blog.

  7. Ron

    As the publisher of one of these big CBA publishing houses I so want to agree with you, and to some extent I do. We publish far too much junk and dribble in our industry. But I would also caution us not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, to use an old cliche. If you run a grocery store, for example, you have to sell all kinds of food, from prime steaks to bubblegum. Each kind of food serves a purpose and is eaten in the context of a certain social setting. If you want a romantic dinner with your wife and meaningful conversation long into the night, you aren’t going to serve M&M’s and chocolate milk. If you are watching a football game with friends you aren’t going to serve caviar and prime rib. A Christian publisher tries to engage various audiences at different points of entry. We publish lots of wonderful fiction and non-fiction (real, gritty, profound), but those kinds of books don’t tend to sell well so nobody notices them. We are only known for our successes, and those tend to be mass market books like a “Left Behind.” People only seem to notice the “Left Behinds” because they get all the publicity, which is not the publisher’s fault but the media’s. But “Left Behind,” as much as one might fault it for being a literary lightweight, has generated thousands and thousands of letters from people who came to faith and were discipled into the church by the single fact that they were profoundly impacted by its story.

    It’s easy to say, “This is good fiction and this is not.” But as someone who has evaluated fiction for 20 years I can assure you it is not that simple. Is the definition of “good” based on the writing, or is it based on the impact to the person’s heart and soul? If it is based on impact, then “Left Behind” is one of the greatest of fiction masterpieces — not to the thinking and well-read believer who already has a faith foundation, but most certainly to the unbeliever or new convert because an army of millions has been so impacted by it that they are compelled to tell everyone they know about it.

    One other thought — CBA has been very good to our culture in this respect. Before CBA there were few if any publishing houses that were favorably disposed to “Christians” who wanted to express their thoughts in writing. If you were known to be a Christian, you had a strike against you. Today, there are Christian publishing houses who are constantly thinking about how to engage, instruct, challenge, encourage, and inspire believers and non-believers alike on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Do we publish a lot of junk? Of course. But so do all publishers! A giant like Doubleday publishes just as much junk as a large CBA house like Zondervan, Tyndale, or Thomas Nelson. We don’t purposely publish junk — we believe in everything we publish — but books are art, and art will be judged 1000 different ways by 1000 people. Art is subjective, not objective. It’s easy to paint CBA with a broad brush, but we’re trying to do the best we can. All of these “Christian” houses are made up of highly educated men and women, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, literary and pop efficianados trying to do our best to make a dent in the universe.

  8. Tony

    All fair points, Ron, which is what I’ve been trying to say here — we blame the publishing houses, but publishers have to respond to market demand. My chastisement is therefore directed at readers, at my own brothers and sisters.

    I think it is possible to discern good and bad fiction, however, and that the difference turns on more than the effect it has on particular readers. I think this is bound up in questions of truth and art, and so can become pedantic and tiresome, but think of it this way: if quality of literature turned entirely on reader impact, then we would have no way to determine whether Left Behind is worse than My Name is Asher Lev, or worse than Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, for that matter, other than to conduct a head count. To be sure, good writing is intimately related to its effect on the reader, but the quality of the reader matters for that evaluation, which is the point I’ve been trying to make. To take a related example, I think we’d both agree that Handel was so far and above Britney Spears as an artist that she scarcely deserves the title, but more American teens would likely label her a “positive influence” on their lives than would name Handel. Garbage in, garbage in, seems to be the rule, when it comes to art consumption. That’s a fault of our education and parenting, however, not publishers or music distributors.

    So, to sum up, keep doing what you’re doing, because selling the pop xian lit stuff enables you to publish what I would call better writing, which makes us all better off. Meanwhile, let’s both keep harassing our friends to try something more profound in between their bubblegum helpings. Deal?

  9. Lincoln S.

    “Insufferable snootiness” indeed…despite my distaste for your continued stratification of those you consider to be good or bad thinkers, readers, parents, Christians, etc. (good means like you, bad is everything else…or, more appropriately, beneath), I am always impressed by your insight. Snooty or not, you pose thoughtful questions with humility enough to leave them without answers. Clearly you are among a great class of people, but you could stand to be a bit more forgiving to those of us who are still striving to such heights. (Cheers!)

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