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Writing Christian Literature

July 31, 2017
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True story: I love webcomics1. I read about 15 as they update and around 100 on a more random basis. I should specify, since many people don’t think of comics as serious, that the comics I really like are story comics, and the best one have an end in sight when they start (i.e., they are working towards a fitting resolution to the whole story, even if they take a long, long time to do so). These comics are common enough on the web but are maybe not familiar to people who know about comics mostly from newspaper comics (which are probably some of the worst examples of the art form these days) or from superhero comic books (which quite deliberately have no end in sight for the story). If you are going to have trouble treating comics as literature for this article just imagine that I am discussing stories that are more visual than a book but less so than a movie.

A while ago I saw a link from a comic I read to another comic and decided to check it out. It was a well-written fantasy comic called Daughter of the Lilies and I decided I should definitely bookmark it2. Much more recently I realized that there was some sort of furor in the comments which had started because the comic authors had mentioned that the comic would include Christian themes (or some such similar language). This makes the story (the story about a magic-user who, in the first episode, fights cannibalistic cave-elves) Christian literature. But how, and in what way, can such things to be Christian literature?

The problem with saying “Christian literature” is that it doesn’t mean anything too specific. What it indisputably means is “I can tell that this work reflects ideas that come from Christianity”. However, that definition is tied to (amongst other things) the definer’s ability to recognize Christian themes. I might be able to read a book and tell that the author was not only Christian but Catholic, for instance, whereas a non-Christian might miss all of that. Moreover, some works bear the imprint of Christianity but are actively rejecting it. Most of the more vocal atheists in the West are not rejecting gods so much as they are very specifically rejecting Christianity.

Part of the problem here is that almost any work can bear some imprint from Christianity. If I were to write a restaurant review it might be that my Christian ideas about what the good life actually consists of would bleed through. From a Christian perspective all stories can be Christian stories because all stories can be viewed through a Christian lens. However, from the perspective of having “Christian literature” mean something it’s best to be able to use this term in a manner that decisively excludes, say, Battletech fanfiction.

The only way to really handle this well is to think about Christian literature as existing on a scale. On one end is direct allegory (things like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) and stories in which conversion to Christianity is a major driver of the story. These stories are obviously Christian to anyone who has even the faintest idea about the basic tenets of Christianity. On the other end are works that incorporate Christian ideas without them being so noticeable. I will call these ends the obvious end and the subtle end for reasons that are hopefully themselves obvious.

It would be easy to say that the obvious end of the scale is more Christian because the Christian content is so obvious. What I wish to argue is that what we really need more of is the subtle end.

The obvious end of the scale has a limited audience: Christians, generally. Obviously some works escape these confines but it’s hard to imagine a hard-core atheist reading the Narnia series to their child. The obvious end of the scale also has some limits in story-telling. If the stories are direct allegories they are literally re-telling a story, and any additions will need to be made extremely carefully. If the stories are about other Christian themes another set of limits comes into play. How much do you want to “fix” a story to make it Christian? If everyone fixes their lives by becoming Christian that’s not a realistic story. If God acts directly in the story you probably want to be careful with the actions you attribute to God. I’ve seen this all done well, but it’s tricky.

The subtle end of the scale does not suffer from the audience limit. Lots of people read Lord of the Rings even though it definitely has some Christian ideas in it. However, they are so well woven into the story that people argue endlessly about them. Is Aragorn supposed to be Jesus to Isildur’s Adam? Is the Ring of Power sin? No, wait, maybe it’s nuclear weapons. Maybe Aragorn is King Arthur. (All of these are real ideas that have been floated, and Tolkien himself seems to have felt that attempting to make Aragorn someone other than Aragorn and the Ring of Power something other than a ring containing the power and evil of Sauron was stupid. He apparently did not like allegory and did not like being accused of it.)

Part of the reason that the subtle end of the scale has less issue with audience is that it is also free from some of the storytelling constraints of the obvious end of the spectrum. I could write a story about a mob boss into which I wove themes about how power is an unsuitable end and violence an unsuitable means and plenty of people who like all sorts of fiction would read it. A story about how a mob boss stopped being bad by becoming a Christian would only really be interesting to people who find conversion compelling.

The potential objection to this claim about the audience for stories is that it may sound as if I am arguing for stealth evangelism. Some people may remember that I have rather clear opinions about the means by which evangelism is accomplished and stealth evangelism may sounds like it falls outside the bounds of allowable means. However, stealth evangelism is already occurring around us every day. When we wake up we are bombarded by the evangelical tracts of the modern nation-state, the altar calls of the prophets of commerce, and the muttered prayers of the observant hedonists. Our lives are soaked in evangelism for the non-Christian religion of modern life. Many of these evangelical moments come as stories. Advertisements tell us short stories about how commerce redeems and how it can be woven into the fabric of our lives, as a simple example. What I propose is that subtle Christian literature provides an antidote to this.

One of the great projects of modernity (begun by the Enlightenment) has been to place religion in a box. Religion exists in a private sphere that influences very little. You go to church on Sunday (or mosque on Friday, or synagogue on Saturday) but outside of that religion should touch very little. When you ask questions like, “How do I conduct myself acceptably while searching for romantic love?” or “What must occur to make the killing of another human being a moral act?” or “If my neighbor and I disagree on how to run our community how do we resolve this?” (and who is my neighbor, anyway?) these questions are answered by the culture or the state. They exist in separate boxes from religion, with labels like “romantic relationships”, “conduct of war and capital punishment”, and “politics”. In such a world this Enlightenment project has reached its full fruition. In such a world religion is a vestigial organ and will be gradually reduced into nothing. And, in such a world, subtle Christian literature is impossible.

Subtle Christian literature requires that there be a Christian way to deal with subjects that everyone deals with. If you can write a story about someone falling in love that is subtle Christian literature then you are asserting that Christian ideas say something about romantic love – perhaps its value, perhaps how to treat people you claim to love, perhaps the purpose of romantic love, but that romantic love is enmeshed in a web of ideas that have Christian options. As such, subtle Christian literature asserts that Christianity does not exist in a box but permeates life. Subtle Christian literature normalizes thinking about Christian ideas in non-church contexts.

At this point you might remember that this discussion started around a webcomic about someone who can shoot fire from her hands and who fights monsters that do not exist in our world. How can this sort of literature normalize Christian thought? I have never engaged in magical combat with creatures who defy physics and I do not need to be shown how ideas drawn from the rich well of Christian thought might change my conduct in these battles I do not engage in. There are two responses to this.

First, both science fiction and fantasy settings can be used to up the ante on certain more ordinary decisions. When (to use a well-known example) Frodo must choose to take on the burden of the Ring of Power the situation heightens the stakes on a moral decision that bears a lot of resemblance to smaller ones we go through daily. When an adventurer who is saving lives literally fights creatures empowered by self-doubt this highlights the importance of dealing with self-doubt within the story.

Second, if Christian has hope for the world it has a lot to say. If Christianity has a lot to say then it can say things about worlds that do not even exist. I once worked out the outlines for a story in which the primary moral dilemma would focus on a pastor trying to decide if artificial intelligences could sin and be saved. I liked this idea because Christianity has resources to deal with this question (which, I fear, will cease to be a merely academic one within my lifetime). Showing that Christianity can handle off-the-wall questions is in some sense just muscle-flexing. One of the ways to show that Christianity does not belong in a small box is to show that it can expand clean out of the box of the real world.

So I embrace subtle Christian literature. I want to see more people writing things that look like they can’t possibly be informed by Christianity because they break too many of our expectations of Christian literature and yet end up expanding our horizons. We as Christians are being flooded with non-Christian values. When we bring Christianity to the table in new ways we provide some pressure back in the other direction.

 

 

[1] Remember that a lot of what I read, both for work and pleasure, comes with footnotes and references, and much of it can be used to humanely euthanize animals just by reading it out loud in a monotone. Just in case you were wondering why A) I think it’s acceptable to stick footnotes in almost all my posts and B) why I might like some of my stories to come as pretty pictures.

[2] If you going to go read the comic you should start at the beginning. Why should you read it? The single thing I found most compelling is that the first story arc introduced a couple of mysteries. However, rather than focusing on these mysteries, the direct action of the plotline focused on the characters surviving a period of danger. There’s this promise that behind the action of the individual sub-stories there is at least one other long story being told which I am very interested to see the conclusion of. Mind you, there’s more going on now, but by the time I had read the first small story arc I had already reached the conclusions I outline here.

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