On Christian Sincerity

18 February 2014

“The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.”
martin luther

I realize in writing this post that I'm going to be stepping on more than a few toes. Up to this point, I've kept these thoughts close to my chest, thinking and feeling them all the same, but only sharing them with my parents and Bree on certain occasions. The reason for breaking my silence is not a great one; rather, my thoughts have matured and rounded out to the point that I now know I can express them. What was first only a nagging feeling is now a professed statement. 

Brevity being the soul of wit, I will toss aside my own Poloniesque verbosity and cut quickly to the chase:

do Christian authors have to write Christian heros?

Christian authors seem to feel that it would be a denial of God's righteous sovereignty not to either (a) have a Christian protagonist or (b) include the dreaded conversion scene that has become the hallmark of most sentimental drivel. We are Christians, and we know that only those who proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord will live with Him in eternity, but this conviction gives us a peculiar worry that if we don't put a shiny "Christian" sticker on every admirable character we write, our readers will begin to suspect a lapse in our faith.

Is this really our measure of "doing all to the glory of God": an automatic, superficial response, as easily decided as the shoe-crosses Luther mentioned?

Characters matter more to me than any other aspect in a work of literature, because they provide the lens through which I'm going to view a story. I crave something rich and personable in the literary folk I enounter, and this is seldom found within the realm of Christan fiction. Specifically speaking, I do not dismiss Christian characters. When an author takes it upon himself to present a follower of Christ in a realistic and God-honoring fashion, I praise his effort. But herein lies the sting: they rarely do it well.

We've all seen the covers, read the predictable summaries, and passed on to something new. I'm not necessarily referring to Elsie Dinsmore, though she and her ilk have certainly left their mark, but to modern Christian fiction that falls short of real Christan standards. We have the Bible as our model, a book of history, prophecy, poetry, and wisdom; naturally, our own stories will always fall short in some way or another. The object here is not perfection, but glorifying the One Who called us into being. And to be brutally honest, the majority of the literature published under a Christian label is not fulfilling that purpose. We want to proclaim Christ's Name boldy, but what we're really doing is reducing a life of faith to superficial triviality. Dorothy Sayers said it best in her essay, "The Dogma is the Drama"—

We have shown the world the typical Christian in the likeness of a crashing and rather ill-natured bore—and this in the Name of One who assuredly never bored a soul in those thirty-three years during which He passed through this world like a flame. Let us, in Heaven's name, drag out the Divine Drama from under the dreadful accumulation of splipshod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction.

Lewis and Tolkien are praised today as two of the best Christian writers of the twentieth century (and possibly of all time). We lift them up on golden pedestals and erect their stories beside them, drawing rich quotes, stunning plots, and Biblical parallels from the books — and yet, neither Tolkien nor Lewis mentioned Jesus Christ explicitly in their stories, nor did they label their characters "Christians." Their focus — as ours should be — was on writing well, which ultimately means writing truthfully. Tolkien does not need to mention the Devil, for in Sauron we recognize the face of the Evil One and rejoice in his ultimate demise. Lewis creates our sin in Edmund, and though we despise the boy for his betrayal, we also see the same darkness in our own souls and the necessity of a glorious redemption that cannot come from ourselves.

They were strong Christian men whose faith few could deny, and today their names are inscribed on British Literature's page. Hundreds of thousands of readers, Christian and atheist alike, have felt their heartstrings plucked by these two humble British scholars, while you'll rarely find a nonbeliever popping into LifeWay for the next saccharine Amish installment.

wherein lies the difference?

These authors read the right books. They acted justly, loved mercy, and walked humbly with their God (Micah 6:8). Their passion for stories, myths, and legends in all their multi-faceted glory drove them, and in their extraordinarily ordinary tales we recognize the same probing nature of Jesus' parables. Like Christ, they never hand the story's heart to their readers in a glass case that we might see it before we believe it; we must accept it before we can understand it. To the nonbeliever, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, Space Trilogy, and Till We Have Faces are tales told well, but to the believer, they are so much more! Rather than cheapening the Gospel and making it milk for babes, they offer meat that must be chewed thoroughly before its flavor can be known.

May we strive for the same with the books we write.

17 epistles:

  1. "Like Christ, they never hand the story's heart to their readers in a glass case that we might see it before we believe it; we must accept it before we can understand it."

    I wish every Christian author would read this post. Seriously. I have such a hard time finding good Christian novels, because so many authors feel the need to spoon feed us their message. Thank you so much for sharing!

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    1. The spoon-fed message is the first thing that puts me off Christian literature. Give me a real book that I have to work to understand every time! The process is much more rewarding.

      Thank you for commenting, Serena!

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  2. Well said, Elizabeth Rose. I am so glad to have writing friends like you who can put into words something I feel but haven't pinned down. And that quote from Sayers? Oy. Lovely. I am so glad you pointed out that Tolkien and Lewis never blatantly said anything about Christians in their books. Truth. That's what. Well done, dear thing.

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    1. Awww, pssh. You've put in eloquent words many a thing I feel but can't explain. "As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend." And as for Sayers, Lewis, and Tolkien, they were just a brilliantly quotable bunch and I feel like I'm forever nodding my head internally when I read their words.

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  3. This is so important. I'm so glad you addressed it - and in such a brilliant manner: really, this is among your best posts. I think I've not made the allegory in Psithurism deep enough, now you mention this: the best writing is subtle transparency over a living, breathing story. Tolkien and Lewis mastered it, now I've got to try. Ah well, what is life if not a constant state of improvement?

    ..I love when you step on toes, because somebody's usually got to do it, and few do it with such style.

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    1. "Well, I would dance with you, Mr. Parker, but I fear for my new slippers. My credo is don't tread on me."

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  4. Thank you for this post, Elizabeth Rose. It is a joy to my heart to hear another person write on this topic. What I often say to books like these, "Christ is not so much mentioned, but you can hear Him breathing life into every page."

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    1. "You can hear Him breathing life into every page." Well said, Annie-Jo Elizabeth. Well said. ^.^ Thank you for dropping by!

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  5. Excellent post, Elizabeth! I very much agree with your insights here, and thank you for sharing them so eloquently.

    May the Lord bless you in your endeavors to write well for His glory.

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    1. I'm happy they were an encouragement, Johanna, and even happier to have found more kindred spirits. The way may be narrow, but your company makes it brighter!

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  6. YES. Yesyesyesyesyes. This is exactly what we should be trying to do in our storoies.

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    1. I'm glad you agree, Maria Elisabeth. There's so much more to writing a living, breathing, and yes, God-honoring story that Christian authors are missing.

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  7. Yes! Exactly why I avoid a lot of Christian fiction. Much prefer the spirituality that is matter-of-factly part of the fabric--like the setting and the tone--over the explicit spelling-out.

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    1. Exactly, Heather. Just as Jesus should be at the heart and soul of everything we do, and not a powdered sugar dusted over-top to smooth the rough edges. :P

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  8. I don't know what to say, Elizabeth. This post was perfect, and you put into words the kind of things I have been mulling over inside for ever so long. May you keep writing, dear, for God's glory like that :). The day I read this post I was in one of my low points for feeling that none in the world (real life) share the same sentiments I do about stories and faith. Reading this post was a refreshing challenging cordiel and balm to my soul ^_^.
    I loved what you shared about C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien and about the sad affair of modern Christian fiction. Sayers quote is excellent, very powerful and convicting.
    I grant you, not all Christian characters in fiction are ones to be scorned for their caliber. Most of my favorite characters in fiction have something of a sure and growing faith in God, are followers of Christ, understated though it usually is related (perhaps that is one reason I love them). They don't wave their flags carelessly and thoughtlessly. There is a cost. You would not notice it to begin with but that is because their actions and virtues speak louder than their words and profession:

    Jane Eyre, Jean Valjean, Ben Hur, Ransom, Indi, Father Chisholm, Sydney Carton (a redeemed soul) as is Mr. Rochester: Margaret Hale and Father Brown...

    Believing characters need not be trite. In fact this very quote by Sayers should inspire us to do better when it comes to matters of faith in fiction. We must bring first-rate art, first rate music, first rate poetry, first rate literature to the platform... why first rate? Because it is for our Lord, and He deserves our all and best!! Faith cannot be hidden away, but before we apply it to our works like labels to a package we need to have salt in ourselves, we need to be strong in the foundation of God's Word and in the daily living of life according to His will. That means that also whatever we undertake should be the best - perfecting the talents given to us and having a passion for them as did Lewis and Tolkien with their passion for storytelling, myths and literature. The combing of hard work, diligence and passion with a living breathing faith, by God's grace is something we need to apply to our lives as artists/writers and Christians.

    "You are the salt of the earth;
    But if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men."
    Matthew 5: 13

    Beautiful post, Elizabeth! Thank you for sharing your heart - it is wonderful to have kindred spirits to share and sharpen each other in edification. Our little Inklings Group!

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  9. Thank you! This post crossed my path just when I needed it. I'm a Christian, I write Christian fiction, but I resist having a 'conversion scene' in my novels if it doesn't belong there. I want to write books about people like me, who base their lives on God's Word, but who don't quote it in every conversation. Who try to live their lives according to his will, but don't yammer about it all the time. I'm revising my current novel and pondering the role faith has in it, and this is precisely what I needed to hear. Thank you.

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"Gracious words are like a honeycomb; sweetness to the soul and health to the body." —Proverbs 16:24

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