17 September 2012

Sproul gets novels wrong

Here is an index to these posts about Sproul on the arts.

Yesterday morning's lesson by R.C. Sproul was deeply disturbing. I can't remember whether a church service has ever left me weeping with fury before. I believe that it was just exactly the wrong lesson for our particular church to hear.

Sproul wrote off the entire genre of the modern novel as, and I quote, “vulgar, salacious, and obscene.”

I beg to differ. Sure, there are novels that fit this description. And there are portions of others that contain material of that nature. So, although he didn't say this right out, he seemed to be implying that Christians should ignore and avoid an entire genre, an entire body of cultural creation, because of some content in some of the works. This seems to me a dangerous kind of Christian ghetto-ism. In another talk, he said, “Rap music celebrates violence and unrestrained sexuality.” Certainly not. Some rap songs and some rap artists celebrate violence and unrestrained sexuality, but others point out the horrors of just those things, and others celebrate good messages, such as victory over addiction.

My experience suggests that the majority of “conservative,” “evangelical”—or, as a fellow Ekphrasian calls us, “flaming fundamentalist”—Christians need to hear just exactly the opposite message. I have observed that some of my fellow church-goers tend to be already too afraid of the “worldly” influence of movies, music, and fiction. So even though individual Christians may need to be counseled against consuming cultural products that are not good for them, I strongly believe that the majority need to be encouraged to engage more and more—to engage at all!—with what is being written right now.

Here is a tangent. The pastor shared with me that he has personally known people who became addicted to pornography and ruined their lives, and who first encountered “salacious” material in novels, even in “high” “literary” novels such as Lady Chatterly's Lover, and then they sought out worse and worse material. Well, if he says that happened, I'm sure it did. I tend to think that someone who is so driven to seek out the naughty bits of books will abuse any material he comes across, and that the blame is to be laid on that reader rather than on that text. And I am certain that such a response is the exception, not the rule.

But to use such a case to write off an enormous body of valuable work is going too far.

Furthermore, there is this silly idea among Christians (I was deceived by it myself for a long time) that what is new is therefore bad.

OK, another little tangent here. Tolkien believed in a kind of reverse evolution, a de-volution, if you will, in which everything was decaying from its original perfection and gradually getting worse and worse. I can see that value of that as a working theory. But it seems to go against theological principles, taught by my reformed church, about original sin. I have been taught to believe that people have always been just as bad and will always be just as bad. No earthly utopia is possible, but neither will humanity get so bad that they will be nearly wiped out by another Noah's Flood again, until the end of the world. So then how does it make sense to say that today's novels are worse than literature of the past? It doesn't. It's not an accurate description of literary history, either. At one point Sproul said that the ancient Greeks did not allow murders to take place on stage, because they had a moral sensitivity against that. My theatre-director friend and I said to one another right after, “Lysistrata?” Not much moral sensitivity there. And then she told me that later on, in the Roman theatre, slaves were actually murdered on stage to depict the murders in the story. That puts The Hunger Games in perspective.

So obviously I think that Sproul was wrong in writing off The Novel as a genre that Christians should read and write. I've got two novels cooking on the back burner. A young Ekphrasian is sharing a marvelous novel with us, chapter by chapter, each month. So, bring on the novels!

Now I'm going to talk about a few categories of novels that Christians may possibly want to consider reading. Please stick with me here, because I'm going to ask your help with something directly at the end of this post.

Here are several categories of novels I recommend Christians consider reading.

I. First, there are novels that contain very disturbing content for the sake of making an essential point or teaching a powerful moral lesson, such as Lord of the Flies, 1984, The End of the Affair, The Road, The Age of Innocence, Crime and Punishment, or The Picture of Dorian Gray. I think Christians who have the stomach for the violent content really should read these, because they teach important lessons about the horrors of war, society without restraints, voyeurism, lack of respect for human life, gender inequality, corruption, etc. So adult Christians should read these, think about them, write about them, and converse about them with one another and with their non-Christian friends. What other novels would you add to this first category: disturbing with a good moral lesson?

II. Second, there are novels that contain content that should be troubling to a Christian, and which do not use that content to teach some moral lesson compatible with Christianity, and yet which should be read by Christians because of what they reveal about culture, or because of the impact they are having on society, or because of the conversations they could start, or simply because they are so well-written and -structured that to skip them would be to miss out on a great artistic blessing. Possession by A. S. Byatt is my current favorite example of highly-skilled craft; The Da Vinci Code might be an example of a cultural conversation (although that's a bit out-of-date now). I'm not sure if The Blind Contessa's New Machine by Carey Wallace should fit here or elsewhere: it's written by a Christian, yet contains an extra-marital affair, so “my kind” of Christians would be offended by it, yet it's a jewel-perfect example of the novelist's craft, and not to be missed. Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, the anti-Narnia series for children, is so well-written and influential that Christians should be familiar with it in order to appreciate its literary power and counter its spiritual evil. I would say all of Ayn Rand's works fit here. What other novels are contrary to a Christian worldview, and yet are important for us to read for craft or for cultural conversations?

III. There are also those that reveal actual problems in the world, whether historical or contemporary problems. I'm thinking of Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe; Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton; Beloved by Toni Morrison; The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini; Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi (actually haven't read this one yet); All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque; A Farewell to Arms by Hemingway; The Jungle by Upton Sinclair; or What is the What by Dave Eggers. Which do you think are the best social-exposé novels in this category?

IV. Finally, there are novels that are main-stream, popular, recent, acclaimed, and so forth, that are purely edifying. These have very little potentially offensive content, and they serve to enrich the lives of readers.

Obviously in their time the works of Charles Dickens served as powerful exposés of social injustice. Jane Austen's painted a portrait of an idealized society based on mutual respect. Jane Eyre dramatized Providence in action. Those of the Inklings translated theology into imaginary worlds to help present doctrine in a fresh light, embodied in characters and places to make them palatable again to jaded readers.

And now?

Well, here is where I really want your help. I asked the pastor if I could put together a list of ten or so very recent novels that are edifying, and share that list as an antidote to Sproul's unbalanced viewpoint. But I want to start slowly. I don't want to scare anyone off of novels,so I'm trying to compile a list of the best recent novels that, say, a 10-to-13-year-old could read without encountering troubling content, so that I can share this list with my fellow congregants as kind of “baby food.” I would hope I could follow up with some “solid meat” later. For right now, then, I'm looking for recommendations of more books like these: 
the Harry Potter series
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (2004)
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (2004)

My problem is that I've only recently started reading recent works! What about The Help? Have you read that? How is it? Good writing? Any questionable content? How about books by Joyce Carol Oates? Have any of you read The Greek Passion? How is it? Or have you read recent/later works by Brett Lott, Annie Dillard, Ron Hansen, Shusaku Endo, Edward P. Jones, Eevelyn Waugh? What do you think? 

Finally, I plan to do a later follow-up list of works that are a little more mature, but still just really, really edifying overall, like Unveiling by Suzanne Wolf (2004). Suggestions for this list?

OK, so, what other novels can I add to my “baby food” list? What others should I add to my “first solid meat” list? Remember, for the first list there can't be any content that would be potentially offensive to the conservative mind (which pretty much just means sexual content; violence is usually OK to some extent, and dangerous ideas are hardly a problem at all), and the overall message has to be consistent with the most obvious Christian teachings. Oh, and I think that realism is preferred over fantasy, which I know is a weakness of mine, so “realistic,” edifying, recent novels are what's wanted!

That's where I have to start. I hope I can go from there.


Anonymous said...

I'm going to spend all my time reading your blog if you keep writing essential things. Have some heart!
So: Amen. And Amen. Verily, verily, I say unto you that you've captured it. I suspect that R.C. Sproul would not like what I've written recently. Let's say it is trash, to write of entire genres is a categorical mistake, and unhelpful.
I loved "the Help, and I thought it was a nice movie. "The Book of Negroes" and "the Secret Life of Bees" are strong recent reads. Other than that, everything you listed is what I read. I'm actually only reading in 3 categories right now:
1. Indie fiction/peer work.
2. Children's books.
3. The "canon" that I'm missing of the great historical lit.

I like that: flaming fundamentalist. Gives us a little twist, oui?
Signed: Brenton, fundamentlist flamer!

And your fonts are all wonky on my screen on this post (only).

Beth Barshinger said...

Michael Vey and Michael Vey 2 Richard Paul Evans

These are books for middle school students

jfutral said...

I've been trying to warn you. Thirty years of experience here is trying to tell you that to continue down this path will only lead to bitterness, anger, or sorrow. I've experienced all three. People of whom I fully respect, and am even in line with theologically are, sadly, clueless about art. Yet they have no problem speaking out on and against art.

What about all the people who have read _Lady Chatterly's Lover_ and haven't gone down the path of pornography? How is a person supposedly getting hooked on pornography from this book all of a sudden the norm and everyone else the exception (although, I suspect pornographic disposition was already an issue, but I don't know the person)?

The only positive affect I've seen and had on people who theologize about art in this manner, who want to test everything to find evil instead of test everything and hold onto the good, is one person at a time, one work of art at a time. Spend your time on the people who care and are open.

The irony is theology starts with a creative Creator. Theology starts with Art. Art does not start with Theology. Invert your thinking for a little while. Think artfully about theology instead of thinking about art theologically.

You can allow this if you want. Mostly it is meant to you personally.


Curt Day said...

I'm a nonfiction reader myself. But the fear-avoidance response that many of our fine fellow flaming fundamentalist friends and family forever find in fiction, goes double for nonfiction. BTW, I am an ill-alliterate.

How many people in our church have read or even would read King, Cone, Davis, X, Zinn, Chomsky, Hedges, Pilger, Kathy Kelley, Roy, Fisk, or others of a similar persuasion? In fact, how many have even read Politkovskaya? There is an additional purpose to providing this list than to be a name dropper. It is to show that there needs to be no salacious material to prevent fellow flaming fundamentalists from burning books and even authors. As one fellow church goer often asks when I offer him a book, "Did the elders approve of that book?" What can I say? Some will only brave the kiddie pool. But most of that some are conservative Christians.

Though Francis Schaeffer was horrible in his evaluation of the arts, and Sproul is just a milder form of him, Francis did make one point that explains why many Fundamentalists bury their heads in the sands of waiting for eternal life. That point was a fear of his, and thus a warning, that Christians would first seek their personal peace and prosperity and then let all other things fall to the wayside.

In short, much of conservative Christianity has become a breeding ground for a self-inflicted spiritual autism. Conservative Christians are only concerned with what makes them feel good about themselves and their future. In addition, they are deathly phobic of being contaminated by nonChristian world views. So they only see the need to read Christians who tell them how to feel even better about their spirituality.

Rosie Perera said...

"...much of conservative Christianity has become a breeding ground for a self-inflicted spiritual autism"

Wow, Curt! What an awesome quote. I'm going to add that to my commonplace book.

Sorina, here are some novels I'd recommend for Christians to read. Most of them would probably be way too "meaty" for your congregation. But they all deal with faith, doubt, sin, the human condition, grace, beauty, truth, goodness.

The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoevsky)
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (James Joyce)
Viper's TangleFrançois Mauriac
The Second Coming (Walker Percy)
Lost in the Cosmos (Walker Percy)
The Brothers K (David James Duncan)
In the Beauty of the Lilies (John Updike)
The Sparrow and Children of God (Mary Doria Russell)
Life After God (Douglas Coupland)
Blue Shoe (Anne Lamott)
Life of Pi (Yann Martel)
Broken for You (Stephanie Kallos)
Crooked Little Heart (Anne Lamott)
Saint Julian (Walter Wangerin)
A Song I Knew by Heart (Bret Lott)
Setting Fires (Kate Wenner)
Saint Maybe (Anne Tyler)
Glittering Images (Susan Howatch) and the rest of her Starbridge series: Glamorous Powers, Ultimate Prizes, Scandalous Risks, Mystical Paths, and Absolute Truths.

Others that have been recommended to me by the same people who recommended the above, but which I haven't read yet:
Roger’s Version (John Updike)
The Moviegoer (Walker Percy)
Silence (Shusaku Endo)
Diary of a Country Priest (George Bernanos)
Godric (Frederick Buechner)
The Spire (William Golding)
A River Runs Through It (Norman MacLean)

jfutral said...

@Curt, I am like you, mostly a non-fiction reader.

I am actually less inclined to think the problem is fear. I think it is more a problem of mis-applied certainty. Which, of course, could be driven by a fear of uncertainty or insecurity in a field. This is why I think rationally countering much of the exposition is more often not effective. The underlying issue is emotion—whether fear, or uncertainty, or insecurity, or hubris.

While I agree that Schaeffer got a lot wrong, at least he was willing to engage art. As a matter of fact, reading much of Schaeffer in my early life as an artist, plus a brief stint at L'Abri, both helped me become a better artist and helped me at least feel like I wasn't insane as a Christian wanting to be an artist. While I don't agree with many points in his essays Art and the Bible, it is still one of the best writings on faith and art to date.

But he is definitely a product of his time, Modern rational Evangelicalism trying to counter Modern rational Secularism.

Ad this is the upheaval the church is going through now, with much of the world going through something similar. Modern certainty is no longer sufficient. But the old guard insists that it is. It was sufficient in the 20th century, it is still sufficient. And truth is certainty if it is true.

Art is not "certain". And the more uncertain the art, the more it veers from Truth, or so the thinking goes. Which of course makes us even more certain that it is evil, or at least "not Godly".

Judge a tree by its fruit. Lady Chatterly has had evil fruit (although, probably not really, since it is unclear which tree we should be looking at) therefore, the tree is evil. Never mind any "god fruit" it may have produced.

Plus there is a thinking that the effects of art are one way, that art affects us, not that we affect the art, or more specifically, it is our eye that will influence how the art comes to life. What was it scripture said about the eye? Christians want to apply that idea to the art and artist, but never the viewer. I think that is backwards.


Curt Day said...

We agree that there is more emotion in the Christian reaction against the arts than rational objections.

As for Schaeffer, he is also a product of the same Seminary I went to, though not at the same time. In its reaction against the dominance of subjectivity in liberal Christianity, it tended to reduce truth to propositional truth.

Though there is much to be said for your analysis because what is occurring amongst Christians is, at least, a partial embrace of Post-modernism. This embrace causes a great discontent with past Christian leaders because, as Sorina accurately observed, they are addressing today's world by answering yesterday's questions.