The authors had set their tales within a “Christian bubble” that was safe and nice, and although these authors would nod their heads at the reality of vices such as smoking pot or smart-mouthed teens, there was no real sin, no real suffering, no Dostoevskian “crucible of doubt.” Nor was there any passion or catharsis, probably because the characters (and their dialogue) sounded like they were sketches from a recalled 1990s PBS special.
Flannery O’Connor—the great twentieth-century Christian novelist—understood this well and often wrote about it. In one instance she shows how the Christian novelist has a tendency to stay away from the dirty.1
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.
Such fiction—the kind that you will likely find on the shelves at your local Christian bookstore—will do little to transform your character.
The Scandal We Need
When literature does not “penetrate concrete reality” it can’t affect us. Books that cannot penetrate us are kin to those unreadable Novel of the Year contenders. What we should be seeking are novels that can read us, that scandalize us, and cause us to trip, fall, and, thus, learn.
By scandalize I mean something positive. I’m using the word scandal in the sense of skandalon, meaning “stumbling block.” In the New Testament, Peter calls Christ the skandalon, the “stumbling block” that causes disbelievers to fall (1 Peter 2:4–8).
Again, relying on O’Connor’s insight, she uses the phrase “stumbling block” to refer to her fiction. She writes, “That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence.”2O’Connor’s fiction is scandalous because she makes a belief in Christ a matter of life and death.
Reading stories that are merely ethical systems in disguise will do little to transform our character, like any story that reflects our current ways of thinking about ourselves and the world. Simplistic allegory is often weak and two-dimensional, impossible to inhabit in any real sense. No one is scandalized by an Aesop fable, even a baptized one.
But when writers imitate the scandal of the incarnation in the way they write, their narratives transform readers to be more like Christ. Christians should make it a habit to be regularly scandalized, specifically in what we choose to read—it is through scandalous literature that we will become more like Christ.
What should we be reading?
The majority of Christians in America read many more self-help and Christian living books than literature.
But if we look at the example of the Son of God himself, we don’t see him speaking on how to make friends and influence people or seven methods of effective discipleship. Rather, he made his ministry about telling stories and living as the hero of a true story. Christ is the Word. The Bible is a story. If Christians are not reading stories, they are neglecting one of the charges of the gospel.
Christian Smith writes in Moral Believing Animals that stories “tell us what is real and significant . . . who we are, where we are, what we are doing, and why. . . . As human beings, we are made by our stories.”3As Christians, then, what does this mean for our reading lives?
It means we should choose stories that seek to capture the grit and reality of the incarnation and thus demand imitation. There are the great dead heroes of the past who should be at the top of our reading list—Augustine, Dante, Dostoevsky, O’Connor, Walker Percy—but there are also new faithful voices in the present—Boyagoda, Gina Ochsner, Paula Huston, Ron Hansen, Daniel Taylor, Suzanne Wolfe, Gene Luen Yang, and a host of others.
In these authors’ works, evil sometimes has its day. Characters may not be reduced to villains or heroes. Readers who prize the easy read, the book with clear bad guys and good guys and a worldly happy ending, will not find their reflections of human nature comforting.
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Jessica Hooten Wilson