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The Inspirational Element–Through the Ages

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Sorry about not posting yesterday—the day just got away from me.

While most reports about the surge in sales of Christian Fiction talk about it as if it’s something new that’s never been seen before, this is about as far from true as possible. But just as Christian Fiction has its roots in antiquity, so does the argument about whether or not Christians should be reading fiction.

In his essay “Christian Poetics, Past and Present,” in the book The Christian Imagination, Donald T. Williams looks at some of the more famous arguments for and against Fiction from a Christian viewpoint:

–Augustine believed that “literature—even pagan literature—conveys truth and is therefore not to be despised.” He also believed that Christians have not only a right but an obligation to “learn and employ the art of rhetoric” to enable us to share Truth with the “pagan” world.

–Moving into the Medieval and Renaissance periods, we see literature become more allegorical in nature (such as Beowulf, Piers Plowman, etc.). Yet there still remained enough tension to cause Chaucer to retract his “human and sympathetic portrait of ‘God’s plenty’” before he died.

–Luther wanted to know why the devil should have all the good music and “noted that literary study equipped people as nothing else does to deal skillfully with Scripture.”

–Calvin brought in classical philosophers such as Plato, Seneca, and Cicero to apply to the critical reading of Scripture.

–Puritans such as Richard Baxter advised “Christian readers to read first the Bible, then books that apply it. If there is any time left, they may turn to history and science.” Novels (i.e., “vain romances, play-books, and false stories”) would “bewitch your fancies and corrupt your hearts.” They were seen as filling the mind with nonsense rather than focusing the mind on holier thoughts. Yet during this time period, the majority of fiction that was being written was at least Moral Fiction if not completely Evangelical Fiction.

–Sir Philip Sidney pointed out literature’s “antiquity, its universality, and its effectiveness as a mnemonic device and as an enticement to and adornment of what his opponents consider more ‘serious’ studies.” He expanded the positive points from Augustine’s tome “distinguishing the right use from the abuse of literary art.” He used the argument that has become the main defense of the art of writing for modern Christian authors: that of pointing out the fact that Jesus told stories, and the Bible includes hundreds of poems (the Psalms, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, etc.). Since, in Sidney’s view, education is supposed to not only provide facts but virtue as well, he argues for the inclusion of literature. The historian is bound by the facts of what happened. The moral philosopher can give the “precept of virtue.” It is the poet/author who can combine both to give role models that can then be translated into real life applications. It is because we were created in God’s image that we have the capacity for creativity, thus creativity expressed in language such as literature, is only showing that we are the image of God.

–John Milton took Sidney’s ideas and ran with them. He wanted to use “concrete images for acquiring both understanding and virtue.” It is through reading Christian literature that we are connected with the mind of the author and, therefore, put into closer contact with God; the author, as the image of God, is sharing the mind of God through his writing. Milton argued against banning secular writings; he saw it as important to expose ourselves to the world’s mindset, or else “What wisdom can there be to choose, what continence to forbear, without the knowledge of evil?”

–Moving toward the modern era, literature was still slow to be accepted by those of good morals and upstanding character. This is quite visible even in Jane Austen’s writings. In Pride and Prejudice, when Mr. Collins is asked to read to the family on his first visit to Longbourne, he is aghast when handed a novel from the circulating library and gives a diatribe on the evils of exposing the minds of young women (especially) to fiction. He chooses to read instead from Fordyce’s Sermons, much to the consternation of the girls.

–Tolkien saw man, the author, as “the refracted Light/Through whom is splintered from a single white/To many hues, and endlessly combined/In living shapes that move from mind to mind.” In fiction, “the secondary” (created/fictional) “world echoes the primary creation in more ways than one.” Or in other words, the basic plot for fiction is that of Salvation.

–Lewis believed that “idolization of culture (including literature) corrupts and destroys culture.” Literature “enlarges our world of experience to include both more of a physical world and things not yet imagined. . . . This makes it possible for literature to strip Christian doctrines of their ‘stained glass’ associations and make them appear in their ‘real potency’” which is seen in the Narnia series. Literature gives us the heroes that can teach us how to face the villains in our real world. Reading outside of our own narrow culture can fortify our faith, which we have inherited in its full strength through the ages in which that literature was written.

–Flannery O’Connor “believed that great literature deals with ultimate concerns that are essentially theological.” She stripped away the “stained-glass associations . . . with practical wisdom on how to embody the anagogical vision in concrete images which can speak to the modern reader.” (quotations from Williams’ essay)

Williams concludes his essay by arguing that we have lost our strong literary tradition from 150 years ago and have become “cheap imitations of Lewis and Tolkien” with “too many saccharine historical romances” for Christian literature to be taken seriously.

So my question is this: what’s the last piece of classic literature you’ve read? Did you see elements of Christian Fiction in it? Was it Moral? Inspirational? Worldview? Evangelical? What can we as writers learn from the content and themes (not necessarily craft) of classic literature?

7 Comments
  1. Thursday, January 24, 2008 11:11 am

    The last classical work I read was Pride and Prejudice.

    But I have 2 favorite classics that I reread over and over–To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby.

    As a Christian, I love The Great Gatsby because it shows clearly that living a life apart from God will never satisfy. There’s always a bit of sadness for me at the end of the story because I want to jump in and tell Daisy and Tom and Nick how they can really find happiness. It’s not money or love–it’s God.

    And I’m always remotivated then to get back to my own writing since my own stories deal with similar struggles but include where true happiness is found.

    Maybe that’s a bit convoluted, but that’s why I like The Great Gatsby so much–it points out, from a secular viewpoint, that man can’t find happiness on his own.

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  2. Thursday, January 24, 2008 2:44 pm

    Is this a good time to be embarrassed to admit how long it’s been since I’ve read a true classic? Great post, though 🙂 Of course, my favorite classic of all time is Wuthering Heights, but I may have mentioned that fifty times already.

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  3. Thursday, January 24, 2008 4:17 pm

    I’m with you, G. It’s been so long I don’t even remember what it was. Udolpho is never lumped in with the “classics”, though I think it should be since it created a new genre.

    The conclusion of Williams’ essay is the one bone I have to pick with most people about their perceptions of Christian fiction. There is SO MUCH MORE out there than historical romance. In fact, excluding the category lines makes historical romance almost non-existent at the bookstore. My favorite historical authors don’t write historical romance. They write historicals that happen to sometimes have a romance thread in them. There’s a big difference between the two.

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  4. Thursday, January 24, 2008 4:25 pm

    Not to excuse what he wrote, but his essay was written ten or more years ago, when most of the Christian Fiction on the market (readily available at a non-religious bookstore) was Janette Oke, Lori Wick, or Gilbert Morris.

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  5. Thursday, January 24, 2008 11:44 pm

    I think we should be careful not to hold up “The Classics” too high.

    One of my favorite writing books is a 1980’s reprint of “Becoming a Writer,” originally published in 1934, I believe.

    The irreverently “peer” observations of the author about her contemporaries (at least, I don’t know. Are V. Wolff and Gatsby from that time?) were delightful, especially as she discouraged her students from putting them on a pedestal, or trying very hard to imitate them.

    This happens in old churches too, and bothers me wherever it comes up: Older= better.

    It’s just as wrong as the perhaps more recognized miss-statement, newer=better.

    The merits of a work or idea ought to be considered first, before their age. Context, and the ability to endure are important, of course, but I don’t think that’s where we should start.

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  6. Thursday, January 24, 2008 11:47 pm

    Maybe I didn’t explain this right . . . I’m not saying that classic literature is “better” than what’s being published right now—only that there is a lot we can learn from it about how to incorporate the inspirational message into our own writing.

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  7. Friday, January 25, 2008 12:06 am

    And (commenting separately to keep one from getting so long), this issue– defining the value/place of fiction– is one of the most challenging for me just now.

    As the only Christian writer (that I’m aware of) in my real-world, I often feel awkwardly isolated in my delights and struggles.

    The nearest friend of understanding is another young mother of 3 who is a dancer.

    Dance being another medium that is a lovely metaphor for life, she is someone who seems to truly understand the parts of my compulsion and artistic process as expressions worship, obedience and ministry, even when there is nothing blatantly evangelical about them.

    One thing I have told others, and constantly have to remind myself, is that obedience is ministry, whatever that obedience looks like.

    Some days I need the reminder more than others.

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