19 June 2007

Bad evangelical fiction

I recently came across a thread at ChristLit (Christianity and Literature Discussion Group) on "Bad evangelical fiction." It starts out with this post by Darrell Eifert:
...Very briefly, the question is this: why is Evangelical fiction so bad?? Since the term "evangelical fiction" is so very broad, I'll limit my question to those works which try in some way to convince the reader to accept a "Christian world and life view", be it by outright conversion (hero gets saved in the end) or by trying to put forward elements of Evangelical theology as "real" (the dreaded "end times" fiction for example). My experience has been that these attempts invariably fall flat, and rarely if ever rise above the level of propaganda.

My reason for asking is not so much to beat the proverbial dead horse as much as to ask whether there is some fatal flaw in Evangelical theology that renders "Christian" writers of popular fiction incapable of producing works of emotional depth, plausability and insight (just to throw out an example, Sebastian Faulks' superb WWI novel "Birdsong"). I'm hoping that once we know the problem(s), perhaps we can offer a thoughtful solution to those of us who do grapple with how to produce "works of depth" which include aspects of our faith....
Much of the thread is worth reading, but if you're short on time, some of the best posts are here, here, here, here, and here.

I went through a brief phase of reading bad evangelical fiction (Frank Peretti novels, mostly). But I didn't like what they did to me, and I soon tired of that sort of writing. The dualism portrayed in the books gave me an irrational fear that I had to muster up enough spiritual strength on my own to pray against the powers of evil or they would get me. Fortunately I was reading some good literature alongside them (Lewis, Tolkien, Alan Paton, William Golding, etc.), so I wasn't entirely poisoned.

Then I went through a long period of making fun of and railing against the sensationalist and shallow drivel that fills Christian bookstores and Christian best-seller lists. I laughed when a friend made a website debunking the bad theology in the Left Behind series ("It's time Christians left behind Left Behind"). I smirked in solidarity when I read the front-page article in the Vancouver Sun about how the Regent College Bookstore, perhaps the best theological bookstore in North America, declines to carry the series (see also bookstore employee Ian Panth's response to that article and the uproar it caused).

I took a class on Christianity & Literature with Loren Wilkinson a few years ago, and he pointed out that most of the writers of great fiction with any spiritual depth have been Catholics: François Mauriac, Graham Greene, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, etc. So those were mostly the ones we concentrated on in the class. That's not to say there haven't been any lasting classics written by Evangelicals and their spiritual forbears (Pilgrim's Progress, for example), but they have been few and far between.

I've come now to a place in my life where I think I've gotten most of my ranting about bad evangelical literature out of my system and am resting in C.S. Lewis's adage that "the best cure for bad literature is a healthy diet of good literature." So I take his prescription myself and try to share it with others.


Steve Hayes said...

A few years ago a friend lent me a couple of Frank Peretti novels, so I know what you mean. It seemed to me that Frank Peretti was trying to be the Christian Stephen King, but failed rather miserably.

I lent my friend C.S. Lewis's space trilogy to show him how it should be done.

Actually Stephen King's novels, though they vary greatly in quality , are probably more Christian than Peretti's. At first I thought they were simply nihilistic, with nothing Christian about them at all. Unlike Charles Williams, his evil forces just were, until I realised that they were simply a background, and that what mattered whas the way in which the human characters dealt with them, e.g. in Pet sematary.

Then there was the British Stephen King, Phil Rickman, who I think is one of the better fantasy/horror writers today, but lately has been leaning more towards the whodunit.

Last year I challenged the members of the Coinherence-l mailing list to join National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and write a Charles Williams style novel. There were few takers. A pity, because I think we need some new Christian themed novels.

Iambic Admonit said...

Amen, brother! Have you tried writing a CW-style novel? Or even a CSL-style fantasy? When is the next NaNoWriMo? And are you familiar with Walter Wangerin, Jr?

Who do you think are the best contemporary Christian writers?