I guest posted at Speculative Faith a couple years back, and my article Why Fiction is the Wrong Vehicle for Theology garnered some lively, if not predictable, responses. One of my favorite comments was from Melissa Ortega (read it HERE) in which she rattled off “classic novels” that DO contain some heavy theological elements. She writes:
There are few books that sermonize more than Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables or his Hunchback of Notre Dame. Charles Dickens sermonizes a great deal in A Christmas Carol. G.K. Chesterton’s Napolean of Notting Hill is as Free Will vs. Destiny type of story as one can get. And who can forget his Man Who Was Thursday? with its sermon at the end on becoming, ourselves, the Accuser? The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis is an inside-out sermon that preaches on a multitude of sins….from Hell’s point of view, of course. And the Great Divorce steps on very, very specific toes every third paragraph at least.
It’s a great comment. While Melissa is spot on about theological themes in classic Christian lit, her observations also show how far we’ve come in what we call “Christian fiction.”
Many of the books we consider Christian classics could NOT be published in today’s Christian market.
I remember the first time I stumbled upon this phenomenon. I’d just started to pursue a writing career and wanted to familiarize myself with the Christian market. Some of the writers I respected often referenced Flannery O’Connor. I’d never read her and decided to purchase a collection of her short stories. The first Flannery O’Connor story I ever read was “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” It stunned me. Why?
It ends when a shallow, phony Christian woman is faced with her sin — and possibly converted — by being murdered by a psychopath. The Misfit, an escaped convict, shoots her three times, puts the gun down, casually cleans his glasses and says, “she would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” The End.
The story seemed so unlike anything I’d read thus far labeled “Christian fiction.” Its “theology” was front and center, but the imagery was so stark and the ambiguity so thick, there’s no way it could find footing amidst the squeaky clean, predictable, bonnets and romance fare that now dominated the Christian market.
(A cursory discussion of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and possible interpretation in THIS Wikipedia article.)
Anyway, Melissa’s comment made me think of other Christian classics that would have a hard time being published in today’s market. Here’s seven of them:
- The Man Who was Thursday is sprinkled with mild expletives like “go to hell” (ch. 9), “damn it all” (ch. 2), and my favorite, “You great fat, blasted, blear-eyed, blundering, thundering, brainless, Godforsaken, doddering, damned fool!” (ch. 10). Such language would never see the light of day in Christian fiction. (Note: Christians abhorrence of even mild language in their fiction is evidence of deeply flawed theology.)
- A Christmas Carol‘s primary “biblical” lessons are delivered by… ghosts! And everyone knows that ghosts are really demons, right?
- The Great Divorce occurs in a sort of purgatorial limbo. But Christians do not believe purgatory is biblical or that souls in hell might get a second chance to glimpse heaven. So strike this as “biblical.”
- The Lord of the Rings — Dr. Ralph Wood, Professor of English at Baylor University and a Tolkien expert, in his wonderful essay, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: A Christian Classic Revisited, states that Tolkien, “…called The Lord of the Rings ‘a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.’ Its essential conflict, he insisted, concerns God’s ‘sole right to divine honour’ (Letters, 172, 243).” But despite the author’s stated intent, Wood affirms that “Tolkien’s work is not self-evidently Christian.” In fact, many eschew Tolkien’s classic as “Christian” on the grounds that it employs magic, sorcery, etc. Poor Gandalf.
- Dante’s Inferno is divided into three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Not only might the horrific imagery find resistance in today’s market, once again, purgatory is a stumbling block for evangelicals. I’m afraid old Dante must ply his wares in the “secular” classics.
- A Wrinkle in Time, though containing many “Christian themes,” has been opposed by many Christian parents on the grounds that it teaches New Age philosophy. And, oh, it has witches.
- Flannery O’Connor’s works — Not just language, but the incongruous imagery and ambiguity. Like Hazel Motes, lead character in her first novel Wise Blood, a traveling evangelist who spreads the gospel of “anti-religion,” lives with a prostitute (whom he discovers is a nymphomaniac), wraps himself in barbed wire as penance, blinds himself, before killed by an arresting police officer. Signet originally advertised the novel as “A Searching Novel of Sin and Redemption.” Ha! Try selling that to today’s mainstream Christian readers.
So… what’s happened? Why has the Christian market changed so
much? Or is it Christian culture that has changed? And can you think of other “Christian classics” that would find a hard time being published in today’s Christian market?
Mike Duran is a monthly contributor to Novel Rocket, and is represented by the
Gardner of Books & Such
Literary. Mike’s novels include The Telling, The
Resurrection, an ebook novella, Winterland, and his newly
released short story anthology Subterranea. You can visit his website at www.mikeduran.com, or follow
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