Is there such a thing as Christian literature?
Well, we know there is literature out there. We know there are Christians who write literature, and we know that there is literature that has Christian themes – but is there such a thing as Christian literature?
In world literature written in the English language, we may think of such greats as Milton or Spenser with Paradise Lost and The Fairie Queene. Including literature in other languages we may include Dante with his Divine Comedy or Victor Hugo with his Les Miserables. Then there are writers who were Christians, but who did not focus on specific Christian themes like Jane Austen with her Pride and Prejudice or Charles Dickens with his David Copperfield, both authors who wrote, perhaps, with what we may term a Christian ‘sorta’ world view. Ditto for Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Russian writers who also seemed to write and wrestle with issues from a Christian perspective.
But to contemplate even the few works I mentioned above we have already picked works which are theologically at odds with each other. Milton and Spenser, who write from a post-reformation perspective would not be able to reconcile their views with those espoused in Dante’s Divine Comedy, which espouses a Catholic theology. And Austen’s Anglican background (though it is only remotely hinted at in her works) would not likely get along with Dostoyevsky’s more overt Russian Orthodox ponderings about piety, mercy, and redemption.
Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities may well win the prize as a more universally ‘Christian’ themed work of self-sacrifice and redemption that most Christians could get on board with, regardless of their view of Mary, the Saints, or adult baptism. Ditto for many of C. S. Lewis’ works, like the Narnia Chronicles – that is, unless we are strictly opposed to magic in literature.
We Christians, while we love Jesus and seek heaven with every breath of our being (hopefully) are seriously divided on many topics to the point where we cannot really speak to ‘Christian’ literature as a united whole that all Christians agree on. There are Christians who write, and some of those Christians, like C. S. Lewis, write deep and satisfying novels that center on Christians themes of redemption, love for others, and self-discovery–themes that most of Christianity agrees on, regardless of our subdivided cultures within Christianity. I am thinking in particular of one of my favorite novels Till We Have Faces – a novel where Lewis encourages us to take a deep look at ourselves, at our interactions with others, at our faith, and at the masks we wear, masks that deceive even ourselves about our fears and deep longings for significance and love.
This is not to say that there are not novels out there that are overtly anti-Christian or that espouse a non-Christian world view. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy falls in that category. It is a well written novel, and it is, to a point, perhaps very persuasive in what it is trying to say, but its conclusions are most antithetical to what I believe, and I would never have written anything like it, nor did I let my students read it till they were mature enough to handle the themes the book presents, which includes children killing themselves, so as to not be a burden to their parents.
Whether or not students should read such points of view, or perhaps at what level of maturity they will be ready to handle views that are controversial will be material for another blog on another day.
All that being said. There is, perhaps, something called Christian literature out there. The Christian literature I can think of that really fits the bill is usually pop-novel alternatives to secular series and themes, like Christian romance books. They do not, indeed, cannot fall in the category of quality literature, be they ever so Christian in their message and intent. Pop-literature, mass produced literature is by its very nature formulaic and intended to stimulate the passions of its readers. It is hard to tell one volume apart from the next because of the predictable formula used. Each novel wraps up things neatly, everything ends as it should, and the message of the Gospel as well as a message of purity and faithfulness is preserved and upheld throughout. – It may be that such literature has all the ‘parts’ correct, in terms of salvation by faith, moral purity, and God being honored, but artful, it is not. Trite is trite even if it is labeled and infused with ‘the Gospel’ message. I recommend steering away from mass produced lit, be it Christian or not.
The Gospel is our most cherished work of literature. It deserves a worthy vehicle and those who ‘peddle’ it in cheap romance novels in order to make a buck off of it will not get my support to do so.
On the other hand, good literature is good, be it Christian or not. Yes, it will not always be literature that happens to get everything I believe right, nor everything my church teaches right. But, it does not hurt me to stretch a little and learn someone else’s point of view. I need not embrace it just because I chose to read the book. But should I embrace it, it would be because I have looked into it and found it to be true.
There are eloquent persons on most sides of an issue. I am here talking about a REAL issue that is debated by people who are qualified to have an opinion on the issue – I am not talking about self-styled Internet opinion makers, of whom there are so many these days.
Most of the time, when we read, we are not discovering Truth with a capital T in every book we delve through. Most of the capital T stuff we adhere to, we have assimilated over time and gleaned from the Bible and from believers we love and trust, as well as from whatever scholarship we have engaged in.
However, there are benefits to reading outside our own comfort zones. When we stray outside the books we are most comfortable reading, when we delve into literature that comes from another culture or another political point of view or another church, we are stretched–not to the point of conversion to a radically different world view, but rather to make our world a little bigger. Perhaps we will learn a little more compassion towards a group we previously understood little , perhaps we will be gifted to humanize people we were previously disposed to demonize. – And isn’t that what God is calling us to do? …to ‘walk that extra mile’ …to love the least of these …to love our enemies?
A Christian home or a Christian school education seeks worthy books, but it need not exclusively seek books written by Christians or books espousing a particular Christian world view. Atheists, like Hardy, whom I mentioned above, have written thought provoking books that raise issues that Christians need to ponder. Tess of D’Ubervilles comes to mind as one such book. Not only does Hardy skillfully discuss the breadth of the Christian spectrum from the high liturgical to the low church style. He discusses women and their treatment within the church, he discusses double standards of sexuality between men and women. He describes the process by which a person who is constantly rejected by the church approaches paganism and finally embraces it. We would do well to understand the process by which people leave the church and reasons why they choose to do so. No, Hardy is not a Christian, but in many cases his thinking, his heart, his concerns are critical human issues that Christians need to ponder.