Are labels useful? or, why I’m not sure about “Christian” Literature
Every now and then, someone will challenge why I would consider thinking through literature theologically, or whether thinking about theological texts and scripture with all my skills and training in how to read literary texts is a valuable occupation for my time and energies. On one side, I’ve been questioned about whether I read and think about “Christian literature”? This question often comes from two types of interrogators: one group of people who seemingly wish to pigeon hole me as one of those academic type people they don’t really have to take seriously, and secondly, from people who want to reassure themselves that I’m reinforcing their long-held notions of good wholesome books for good Christian men and women.
On another, I’m exhorted by individuals (sometimes merely in comments on Goannatree) who demand that there is a “complete vacancy” for any such thing as Christian literature and that the Bible should surely consume my interest and purview. Otherwise, all this learning is for nought. I want to pose two questions in this and the following post: firstly, is it helpful to have a category such as “Christian literature”?*, and secondly (my next post), what can I learn from reading literature that does not fit within the boundaries of the broadest of definitions of “Christian” literature?
It has not been a bad thing for me to realise how radical the project of thinking theologically about literature can be for many Christians. To have incredulous conversation partners who ask why you are not instead spending your time reading and studying the Scriptures – because that is when one will undoubtedly find God and his teaching – sharpens one’s wit and conscience. But as someone interested in apologetics and engagement with my own community, it is remiss of me not to understand the terms of the culture in which I live and to be able to make my apologetic arguments in those terms.
Secondly, all that I read and watch and experience I examine with a mind to both Scripture and traditions. The criteria by which I consider what is “good, worthy, holy” (Phil 4:8-9) is completely subjective but drawn also from what I have been taught about “how to read.” Having been encouraged to seek the numinous and value expressions of human experience and specifically the product and practice of human creativity, I contend that literature demonstrates, in the particular and the general, the desire for God innate in human beings, as his creation.
Is there such a thing as “Christian Literature”?
We could define “Christian Literature” as literature which affirms Christian theology or is merely a retelling of biblical narrative, or what C.S. Lewis terms, the ‘Christian myth’.*** And while this seems relatively straightforward, I am coming more to think that labelling a piece of writing, whether it be prose or poetry, Christian Literature is incredibly problematic. To call something “Christian Literature” sets that book apart, and depending on who is doing the naming may serve only to highlight or indicate that a work merely reinforces a particular view of Christianity.
Part of my concern is that many books sold as “Christian” literature, whether in Christian bookstores or large conglomerates, present within their fictional worlds theological implications that I find incredibly problematic. Literature can and does, as a basic principle, carry within it theological ideas and expressions of these. I think often, as humans, we are more comfortable when we can label things and find ownership in them. Thus, we are more comfortable as Christians when we feel safe in labelling an author, a “Christian” author, or a book, a “Christian” book. But, if we are not reading those books (especially fiction) we’ve labelled “Christian” carefully and critically, are we not merely whitewashing Truth?
Pilgrim’s Progress is a classic work of literature. But, I gain nothing more from it if I label it “Christian” if I don’t also read it savouring the deep implications of the metaphoric language. From Christian romance novels to series of books presenting a dramatised version of the apocalypse or any other Biblical event imagined, to call something “Christian” does not it seems (thankfully) also invoke a positive aesthetic judgment, but I would like to suggest that it does naturally cause us to be less critical as readers.
I would like to strongly advocate that it is important for everyone to learn how to be discerning in what they read and how they read. Just because a book presents a “Jesus” figure should not earn it the label of “Christian” literature. If we are going to use that label, there has to be something more substantial. Jeremy Begbie speaks of a possible definition of “Christian” literature in Voicing Creation’s Praise when he writes,
Whatever else ‘Christian art’ is, it will be art which takes for its final ‘realistic’ reference-point the raising of the crucified Son of God from the dead.”
When I’ve read a well-crafted novel, there’s a visceral sense I have of understanding a little more about beauty, about the world, and about Truth. Even more so, when I’ve read something that meets Begbie’s definition. To think about the richness of the outpouring of human creativity as indicative of being made in the image of God is valuable and turns my mind toward God rather than away; this kenotic creativity expresses the desire for the transcendent, the beautiful, and finally also demonstrates the necessity for the incarnational salvation offered in the life, death, and resurrection. Unfortunately, most of what passes for contemporary “Christian” literature just doesn’t do this for me. And until then, I fear the label “Christian” literature is at best overused and at worst meaningless (unless you’re referring to the Bible).
*** Lewis believed that ‘what might be myth in one world might be fact in another’ and that all mythology, religions and pagan ritual have their essence in the one ‘true myth’, which he understood to be a Christian understanding of God and his incarnate son Jesus Christ. See Lewis, CS (1798). Surprised by Joy. Glasgow: Fount Paperbacks, pp170-175.