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Christian Fiction, Part II: The Bubblegum Diet

April 5th, 2007 Posted in The Artful Life

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.