Over the next few weeks, I would like to offer for discussion what a powerful tool fiction can be for exploring the Christian faith in authentic ways. In this two-pronged series, I would like to consider a few literary works according to the following categories:
- Fiction that worries those who don’t believe in God,
- Fiction that worries those who do
The first category involves stories either by “established” Christian writers who by their very label as “Christian” scare off, offend or put on the defensive non-Christians. Or, this category may also include stories with “Christian” themes or elements, which nonbelievers may dismiss as irrelevant, archaic or even idiotic but which, when read with care, actually reveal a thoughtful and challenging way of examining one’s own life.
The second category involves stories that I have seen Christians avoid on the basis that ideas raised by them may somehow pose a threat to one’s faith. This is understandable, given how the book may openly attack, deride or ironize the faith. But that doesn’t mean that a Christian reader must cower in fear from exposure to skeptical misgivings or even “deconversion” traps. However, neither must a reader of faith feel compelled to (as my mom puts it so eloquently) “waste one’s eyeballs” on material that isn’t edifying either (I’m assuming we are taking things like gratuitous sex, violence and swearing, for instance, off the table and proceeding with some measure of common sense in our selection). But I mean to show that the edification can come from even the darkest of places; actually, that is often where the most compelling points for faith come after all.
For the sake of the scope of this series, I will focus on just “fiction” as loosely defined by a narrative telling of another reality with settings described and characters sustained at length. In terms of genre, then, I will be looking specifically at a handful of novels and short stories (not, then, by definition, drama, poetry or creative nonfiction).
I’ve taken my series title from Frederick Buechner’s talk he was invited to give at the New York Public Library on the subject of “Faith and Fiction.” I leave you today with a fantastic excerpt from that talk, in which Buechner sets out to suggest how the two have important elements in common. The quotation is a bit long for a blog (I know, I know) – about two paragraphs in length – but oh so worth it. Thanks for indulging me. I know you will find it discerning and moving, too. Buechner writes:
Faith, therefore, is distinctly different from other aspects of the religious life and not to be confused with them even though we sometimes use the word to mean religious belief in general, as in phrases like “the Christian faith” or “the faith of Islam.” Faith is different from theology because theology is reasoned, systematic, and orderly, whereas faith is disorderly, intermittent, and full of surprises. Faith is different from mysticism because mystics in their ecstasy become one with what faith can at most see only from afar. Faith is different from ethics because ethics is primarily concerned not, like faith, with our relationship to God but with our relationship to each other. Faith is closest perhaps to worship because like worship it is essentially a response to God and involves the emotions and the physical senses as well as the mind, but worship is consistent, structured, single-minded and seems to know what it’s doing while faith is a stranger and exile on the earth and doesn’t know for certain about anything. Faith is homesickness. Faith is a lump in the throat. Faith is less a position on than a movement toward, less a sure thing than a hunch. Faith is waiting. Faith is journeying through space and through time.
If someone were to come up and ask me to talk about my faith, it is exactly that journey that I would eventually have to talk about the ups and downs of the years, the dreams, the odd moments, the intuitions. I would have to talk about the occasional sense I have that life is not just a series of billiard balls to careen off in all directions but that life has a plot the way a novel has a plot, that events are somehow or other leading somewhere. Whatever your faith may be or my faith may be, it seems to me inseparable from the story of what has happened to us, and that is why I believe that no literary form is better adapted to the subject than the form of fiction.
(Secrets in the Dark, HarperOne, 2006, p. 173)
So please stay tuned … I have my own list from which to begin in each category, and look forward to sharing these over the next few weeks. But I welcome more suggestions, and would love to add other texts for consideration to the mix!