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.”
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
songs and some
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.
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
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.
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,
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
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.
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,
End of the Affair,
Road, The Age of Innocence,
and Punishment, or
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?
Second, there are novels
that contain content that should
be troubling to a Christian,
and which do not
that content to teach some moral lesson compatible with Christianity,
and yet which should
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
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
for us to read for craft or for cultural conversations?
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
by Khaled Hosseini; Reading
in Tehran by Azar Nafisi (actually haven't read this one yet);
Quiet on the Western Front
by Erich Maria Remarque; A
Farewell to Arms
by Hemingway; The
by Upton Sinclair; or What is the What by Dave Eggers.
do you think are the best social-exposé novels in this category?
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.
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
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.
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:
Harry Potter series
by Marilynne Robinson (2004)
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?
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
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.