I was instant messaging with a student of mine from a few years back and he asked me about a book I’m working on. When I described the main character – a guy named Diego who wants to destroy himself but can’t because the people he meets keep waylaying his problems with their own – my former student said, “Wow, that book sounds like me.”
Unfortunately, I don’t think he’d say the same thing about the vast majority of Christian fiction.
In its earliest form, Christian fiction was allegorical. Novels like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress were built on the biblical model of the parable. The style persisted, finding a more modern version in Charles M. Sheldon’s 1896 sermon-as-novel, In His Steps. These stories, and the many like them, were merely vehicles for the lesson behind them – conduct instruction wrapped in a transparent story.
Sometime later, in general terms and by my estimation the mid-1980s, the pilgrim’s progress became the pilgrim’s egress (which, coincidentally, was an alternate title for Peter Kreeft’s 1996 book The Journey). This happened in a Christian culture increasingly alarmed by the idea that their beliefs were no longer valued and their stories followed. They are embodiments of the desire to flee from culture, reach the safety of the conversion moment, and escape into the light. And there it ends. In conjunction, the Christian fiction market grew as people looked for “safe” stories of belief and publishers increasingly focused on providing such middle-of-the-road fare. At this point, I don’t believe Flannery O’Connor’s classic Wise Blood would get out of the slush pile at most Christian houses given how “unsafe” a novel about a man’s desire to found the Church of God Without Christ would be considered.
This reminds me of a common description of the difference between the Victorian novel (which I would liken to a great deal of mainstream Christian fiction) and the Modern novel. The Victorian narrative ends with the wedding, a symbol of the achievement of the highest aims of that set of cultural norms. The Modern novel begins with the wedding because “reality” only happens when people move beyond the ceremony to the (often ugly) work that comes when you live (or fail to live) a life together. In a sense, the majority of mainstream Christian fiction sells short the day-to-day reality of living out beliefs in a sinful world by building most of its narratives around the conversion moment and failing to address the very real struggles of those who believe (which I would say is everyone).
The fiction of faith should instead be the pilgrim’s ingress, a daring genre considerably more focused on Christians in culture than believers escaping it. It should present pictures of faith in the ugliness, doubt, and circumstances of life outside the walls of assumed belief. Instead, we’ve raised those walls even higher to keep that same ugliness, doubt and circumstance out.
In essence, Christian literature needs an emergent movement just like the mainstream evangelical church needed (and still needs). Otherwise, how will nonbelievers see themselves inside Christian art? And more importantly, how will Christian artists and readers remember that their art should emulate their Savior – by addressing those who need the gospel most in a form that meets them where they are?
Michael Dean Clark is an author of fiction and nonfiction and is in the final stages of earning a Ph.D. in Creative Writing at the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin. His work is set primarily in his hometown of San Diego and has been known to include pimps in diapers, heroin-addicted pastors who suffer from OCD, and possibly the chupacabra.