Archive for the ‘flannery o’connor’ Tag

Letting God Into Christian Literature   2 comments

The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality. He will think that the eyes of the Church or of the Bible or of his particular theology have already done the seeing for him, and that his business is to rearrange this essential vision into satisfying patterns, getting himself as little dirty in the process as possible. (Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, Page163)

What an indictment of much contemporary “Christian literature”! I could have written that myself, but O’Connor wrote it in 1963. I wonder what she would say about evangelical literature today. Probably the same thing.

Ask your neighbors for a spontenous reaction to the phrase “Christian literature.” At best you’ll get a stumbling list of belittling adjectives. My neighbor Matt’s kindest one was “sweet?” No, the question mark was in his voice. How sad! Christian writers can count among their literary antecedents such greats as Chaucer, Milton, Donne, Tolstoy, Dostoyevski, Chesterton, Sayers, Tolkien, Lewis and O’Connor, but we are now viewed as in inconsequential presence in the world of literature, even as “Christian” is the third largest selling genre in the United States.

We have volitionally banished ourselves ot the “inspiration” section at Barnes & Noble, abandoning our neighbors and leaving literature in the hands of writers who leave readers hopeless.

The worthies I listed above were great writers because of their Christian faith. They appreciated the inherent goodness of God’s creation while also recognizing the pervasive consequences of mankind’s fall. Relishing the hope found in Christ’s resurrection and anticipating His redemption, the combined talen with an irresistable urge to tell stories. Armed with a powerful worldview, they made sense of a seemingly senseless world in books and poems that provided eternal significance to the mundane. While never flinching from the cold, hard truth of life in a sin-afflicted world, they held out hope and their works are appreciated today by the vast majority of readers.

For example – Dorothy Sayers wrote the Peter Wimsey detective stories. In the 1920s, she took a lightly-regarded genre and transformed it by employing who-done-it plots and recurring characters to illustrate the conflict between sin and Christian virtue, showing readers how evil might be restrained in the world but never ended by human effort. Sayers was wildly popular. My mother and father, living 1000 miles apart and neither of them particularly religious, both grew up eagerly awaiting each new installment and Sayers’ stories are still available at Barnes & Noble 70 years later.

O’Connor recognized some 20 years later that Christians were expected to write “to prove the truth of the Faith.” She was pressured to tame her “grotesque” characters and to sanitize her Southern gothic fiction, but refused, deploring the sentimental drift of Christian writing into a “distortion that overemphasized innocence.”

When we exaggerate innocence in fallen world, we mock the true condition of man and society, but we also devalue the price paid for the redemption of man and society.

The things we see, hear, taste, smell and touch (what O’Connor called “concrete realities”) are the only medium an artist can work in. We should create characters, invent action and dialogue, and concoct settings that look a lot like places we might visit. For our stories to transcend our present reality, they must be firmly rooted in that reality, not concerned with “unfleshed ideas and emotions.”

O’Connor complained that many Christian writers were “reformers” possessed not by a story, but by the bare bones of some abstract notion. They attempt to use their fiction to deal with problems rather characters. They want to deal with questions and issues, not existence. Everything smacks of sociology rather than those concrete details of life that would give characters and the scenery they inhabit a true realism.

Only through that true realism can writers hope to touch the inner life of the reader where the message we hope to convey can be received. We want to reach the world for Jesus, Christian writers need to demonstrate that we are in this world, that we love our fellow man and that we recognize there are hard edges to reality. When our stories do that, they become real life rendered into fiction that can give hope rather than despair. If readers love it, then we’ve done our part and it is time to step aside and let God do His.

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