How “Christian Fiction” Can Improve

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Adam (2008 novel)

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Christian fiction” is a problematic term, for it raises the danger of literature becoming preachy rather than being good art. Good fiction does not tell; it shows. Didactic fiction is usually poorly written, as the overrated Uncle Tom’s Cabin reveals. There are writers in the Christian fiction genre who write very well–Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker immediately come to mind. They get their message across without being preachy, they have read widely in contemporary mainstream fiction, and they have worked hard on the craft of writing. When I look through fiction at a Christian bookstore, I turn to the first page, then a few random pages, to check the quality of the writing. Most of the time, it is so bad that I have to put the book down. Some books are preachy. Others have dialogue so unrealistic that it strains credulity. Dialogue tags are misused: “He said excitedly”; “She shouted angrily.” This is an elementary mistake that novice writers often make. Adjectives and adverbs are overused. H. P. Lovecraft had the skill to get away with using a plethora of adjectives; most writers do not. Modifiers should never replace images.

On the other hand, some books are so conservatively edited that they come across as stiff. Good style in a novel is not the same as good style in an academic piece, and not all authors or editors understand this. It is obvious that some Christian writers, and most likely some editors, are unfamiliar with contemporary literary fiction. They should read classic modern authors such as Hemingway as well as more contemporary authors such as Raymond Carver or Tobias Wolff. A good writer knows the basic rules of writing, but also knows when to break the rules. If Christian fiction is ever to rise to a higher literary level, writers should become skilled enough to know when to break the rules and when to abide by them.

The main temptation for the Christian writer remains didacticism–preachiness. It might be a better strategy for traditional Christians involved in writing to write “mainstream fiction” and show their world view, rather than preach it. Ted Dekker’s fiction, though more suspense than so-called “literary” fiction, has broken through the mainstream market due to its excellent quality. I have heard people who would never darken the door of a church praise Dekker’s fiction. Who knows? Perhaps Dekker’s books, by showing rather than telling, can do more to communicate the Christian message than a didactic work. Flannery O’Connor once said that the Christian message can only be communicated indirectly for modern secular people to understand it. Perhaps contemporary writers in the Christian genre can take her advice.

The Modern American City

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Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peal...

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No reasonable person could deny that there is some good in large American cities–symphony halls, museums, unique shops, and in some cities, classical architecture (Nashville, Tennessee’s building housing their symphony orchestra is an example). Overall, however, the verdict on most of America’s large cities must be negative. Large cities have become cesspools of crime, alcoholism, illegal drug use, prostitution, lonely, isolated people, rudeness–places where the dregs of human existence can hide. This is not to deny that there is much evil in small towns and in rural areas; as Flannery O’Connor pointed out in “Good Country People,” there are wicked people in the country as well as in the city.

That caveat aside, large American cities have, in the individualistic culture of the United States, become havens for evil and vice of all stripes. Often there is very little interaction between people who are strangers to each other, who often come from many parts of the country and from many other countries. The stable neighborhoods necessary to establish healthy human communities rarely exist in the contemporary large metropolis. Although community is breaking down in every area, a person is more likely to find a human community with healthy interactions, families, and stable friendships in a small town or in a rural area. Thomas Jefferson noted this fact over two hundred years ago. He believed that Americans could, despite their individualism, live a virtuous life (in the sense of eudaimonia, Aristotle’s term for enlightened well-being, a well-lived life) in small towns and in small family farms that nurture human interaction and overcome the self-seeking of individuals striving to seek the products of their own desires. Small communities help a person to reach outside himself for the good of those he loves, beginning with his family, then outward to close friends, and then to the wider community. A sense of obligation to the wider community is more likely when the community is small and when people share common values and goals. In large cosmopolitan cities, there are few shared ends, and there are so many people that any obligation outside an illusory self-fulfillment is difficult to accept. The loneliest people live in large cities because they do not know anyone who shares their values, and they can hide in the lies of seeking money, status, or power. Like Citizen Kane, they would be happiest near their family, around people they know and love, and perhaps doing something as seemingly mundane as playing on a sled. Kane tried to help mankind and ended up losing his fellow man.

With the loneliness and isolation of individuals in large cities and the attendant breakdown of families, more and more citizens of large American cities will grow up into vicious, rather than into virtuous, human beings. Vicious human beings can only be controlled, as Thomas Hobbes recognized, by law, by a state that sets up penalties strong enough to deter crime. For less vicious people, contracts may hold them in line for a while, but contracts, already based on distrust, are not the best tool for uniting a human community. In the small town South and Midwest prior to World War II, a man’s word was his bond. Local businesses routinely gave credit to poor farmers while the farmers waited for the harvest so they could pay their bills. It was rare that such agreements were written down on paper. Those who violated their agreements, unless there were extenuating circumstances, were, at the very least, ostracized from the community. Even “rough people” who would get into fights, wound honor the ancient code that if one is beaten, he should walk away. There was none of the barbarism of today’s fights, when the loser of a fair fight tries to murder the winner. In a small community that values honor, such behavior would get the dishonorable person either killed or exiled from that community. Such honor is possible on a small scale. But the notion of “fairness” is defined differently¬† by the various groups in a large city–not all would accept the notion of a fair fight or of honoring one’s word. The overall moral direction in such large cities is inevitably down–until finally people get tired of anarchy and a strongman takes power over the state to enforce order–and people willingly accept such dictatorship in order to feel safe. I pray that the United States does not get to that level, but unless the country can focus less on large urban population centers with large, faceless businesses and more on small towns and small farms with community-based businesses, there will be little hope for avoiding the final end of the republic.

But hope never fully dies–more people are leaving large cities and moving to small towns and to the country. More people are going into gardening and into raising their own food. Even in large cities, unified communities, primarily ethnic, offer a sense of belonging to those people who live in those communities. Eventually, the methods of large corporate factory farms may backfire, and the government will be forced to allow room for the return of small family farms. There are still traditional churches who have not bought into liberal theology or the faddish worship trends of Evangelical Protestants. Not only do these churches affirm tradition, they also become surrogate families for people who no longer have a family in any meaningful sense. In the northern industrial states, large cities continue to shrink, but there are some small towns that are still thriving and have not been affected by the recent massive emigration to large southern cities. I would love an America that was again an agricultural country of small towns and only a few large cities. If American does not return to that state, I pray that some of the stopgap measures I mentioned above will hold enough virtuous people together to prevent total anarchy and to preserve the freedom within constraints of voluntary community that Jefferson desired.

Censoring Huck Finn

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Recently a new edition of Huckleberry Finn was published that omitted all uses of the “n word” and “injun.” The arguments in favor of censorship were that it would avoid offending many people and that the book itself would be allowed into the hands of more children. Although I suppose there could be a watered down “children’s edition” of Huck Finn placed on the market just as there are “Children’s Bibles,” for the original novel to be censored is a bad idea.

The n-word is offensive and should not be used by decent human beings. However, it was used routinely in the past by people in many parts of the country. Mark Twain‘s novel would not be reflecting the speech of the characters of his time period without using that word. It is silliness to impose today’s standards of morality on an older work of literature. Even the Bible has offensive stories–of Israelites slaughtering men, women, and children, including babies, in the name of God–should the Bible be censored because there are passages that offend today’s moral sensibilities? Should the last verse of Psalm 137, in which the writer desires to smash Babylonian babies against a rock, be censored? What about the works of Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner? Should the “n-word” be eliminated from their novels because they were writing about characters in the Old South who used that word? I pity the contemporary Southern novelist who is starting out–if he wishes to write a novel about the South of the 1950s, I wonder how many editors would eliminate his novel from consideration because some of his characters used the “n-word.” What if the writer is writing about openly racist characters? Perhaps politically correct editors and the radicalized “literary police” want to eliminate certain topics entirely from fiction. But in that case, fiction loses its power to tell us the truth about the human condition, both its good aspects and its bad aspects.

Political correctness is a continuation of the Puritan tradition in American life. Once religious Puritanism died, a secular Puritanism arose to “cleanse” language from all racist, sexist, and “homophobic” terms. Of course these Puritans allow the minority groups they claim to defend to continue to use insulting terminology such as the “n word.” In doing this, they insult the very minorities they claim to support, since they do not hold them to as high a standard of behavior as “European Americans.” When such Puritianism is extended to Huckleberry Finn, how much further will it go? Will there be any stopping the “purification” of all literature to fit the Purtians’ image? Will more publishers of Huckleberry Finn join in the censorship of offensive terms? If so, which books will be next? Which authors will be denied publication because of offending the thought police who infect the literary and academic worlds? When did authors have to write about perfect characters who never use offensive terms?

In the past the main danger of censorship has been from the right. Today the danger is from the radical left, the post-Marcusian Marxists who desire to change the culture by force of law if necessary. The problem is that by hiding the truth of the bad aspects of human nature, these censors may only allow these bad traits to smolder underneath the surface of society until they explode in unhealthy ways. This effort of censorship of Huck Finn should be nipped in the bud now before it spreads to other literature.