This is an extract from a paper I gave this week; you can find the whole paper on my other blog.
It might be much more appropriate to go off and write a novel (and not a ‘Christian’ novel where half the characters are Christians and all the other half become Christians on the last page) but a novel which grips people with the structure of Christian thought, and with Christian motivation set deep into the heart and structure of the narrative, so that people would read that and resonate with it and realize that that story can be my story.
– N.T. Wright, “How can the Bible be authoritative?”
The kingdom novel is an elusive, mythical creature. We’re not even sure if we have any living specimens. We do have some prescriptions for what it should look like, and numerous rumours of sightings.
One of the problems is that most evangelicals who write novels write inferior popular fiction, romance, science fiction or thriller, usually promulgating popular piety. It’s rare to find any fiction on the shelves of Koorong with profound spirituality or reflecting a thoughtful theology. I’m not a fan of secular popular fiction; evangelical fiction is much the same only with even worse writing and bad theology.
Some theologians have used the novel form to get their message across, and we do at least get better theology from them. Brian McLaren wrote A New Kind of Christian and its two sequels; the theology is good, or at least I generally like it, but as a novel it’s appalling. It is dominated by slabs of dialogue which put ideas in characters’ mouths; the descriptive interruptions feel like filler. The plot, characterisation and prose are all uncompelling. It seems to work for a lot of people, at least for getting across some ideas in an accessible way, but it’s not the novel Wright is describing. Paul Wallis, who lives in Canberra, has done a better job in his recent publication, The New Monastic, which I’m reading at the moment.
There are some good literary novelists who have Christian faith, but they are usually much better writers than Christians. We might think of Graham Greene (1904-1991), whose work often reflected Christian concerns, but who struggled to even believe in God’s existence. He wrote what I regard as one of the great Christian novels, The Power and the Glory, following the fugitive whisky priest travelling illegally around a South American republic, administering the sacraments and comforting the people while trying to escape the police and struggling with his own sins. But Greene’s religious concerns faded from prominence the further he went into his career. A polemical biography (Michael Shelden’s The Man Within) I read paints his faith as a cynical veneer. Adultery seems to have been one of his lifelong hobbies and it’s also a preoccupation of his writing.
Adultery was also a preoccupation of the other great 20th century Christian novelist, John Updike (1932-2009). He wrote beautifully and his short story “The Christian Room-mates” is one of the best pieces of Christian literature I’ve read. He might best be described as a liberal Episcopalian who acknowledged the limits of theological liberalism and admired Barth and Kierkegaard. But his Christian themes, whether liberal or not, feel, in the end feel like the subset of a warm humanism. He is one of the greatest postwar American novelists, but he never wrote the sort of novel Wright was imagining.
Closer to home, we have Tim Winton (1960-), one of Australia’s most important novelists. He was brought up a fundamentalist in the Church of Christ, but as a teenager read John Yoder and Jim Wallis, who influenced him to a social justice faith. On the face of it, this is extremely promising. But if Yoder has shaped Winton’s writing, I struggle to find it in anything he’s published since 1992 when Cloudstreet came out. (I haven’t read his early work yet, which might be where I’m more likely to find it.)
Instead, faith in Winton’s writing is more of a subterranean mood. His writings are often described as ‘spiritual’ – the transformative experience of the boys surfing in Breath or the significance of the Swan River to the characters in Cloudstreet. In the Winter issue of Zadok Papers, Lisa Jacobson writes:
Winton’s writing is infused with his Christian faith, although he is not so much a Christian writer, as a Christian who writes. Dirt Music nevertheless reflects his spiritual worldview, and the novel is imbued with biblical language.
This ‘infusion’ is at the level of spirituality and symbolism, the suggestion of spiritual experience and perhaps even divine encounter in the consciousness of the individual. Jacobson goes on to say:
Winton’s work is steadfastly concerned with a faith swept clean of iconic paraphernalia. This aligns him closely with what Bonhoeffer has called a ‘religious imaginative life’ instead of any clear devotional theme. Rather it displays, as Vincent Buckley says of what constitutes religious writing, a ‘tremor undertow of feeling, indicating one pole toward which the temperament is driven by the facts of living.’
Perhaps in reaction to evangelical fiction, Jacobson and others seem glad that the Christianity in Winton’s fiction remains implicit and mystical. Winton’s achievements are significant, and we should be grateful that one of Australia’s greatest novelists writes out of a Christian orientation. Yet his writing only goes a little of the way toward what Wright is hoping for. What his work doesn’t have – or Updike’s or Greene’s – is a Christian community. I think the best kind of kingdom novel would depict a Christian community.
Appendix: Wright’s Great Christian novel: the best attempts I’ve read
1. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (2004)
In 1954, told he is not long for this world, 74 year old Congregationalist pastor John Ames sets out to write a testament of his life for his seven year old son. Robinson’s prose is careful, precise, close to perfect even as she writes in the cadence and idiom of an old man fifty years ago. It is wise and grace-filled. It is Christian in many senses, but perhaps most importantly because its heart is grace: grace is embedded in the narrator and the novel. (I don’t think Christianity is or should be simply grace at its heart, but I think the novel and the novelist might contend so.) A novel Barrack Obama lists as one of his favourites.
2. Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory (1940); also The Heart of the Matter (1948)
3. Victor Hugo Les Miserables (1862)
No novel is quoted more often in sermons and with good reason; it’s one of the most beautiful stories of redemption written.
4. John Updike, “The Christian Room-mates” [short story] (1964)
The cultural Protestantism and mild faith of a college student is unsettled by the impassioned Christian pacifist he is forced to share a room with.
5. Tim Winton, Cloudstreet (1991)
6. Fydor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880)
The novel most quoted by theologians, at least its famous ‘Grand Inquisitor’ parable.
7. C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia (1949-1954) and The Cosmic Trilogy (1938-1945)
8. Mike Riddell, The Insatiable Moon (1997)
The author is a New Zealand Baptist turned Catholic and his novel features a man who may be Jesus returned or may be crazy. Watch out for the new feature film based on it.
9. Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away
10. Morris West, The Last Confession
Books I haven’t read but should have
1. Madelaine L’Engle A Wrinkle In Time
2. The works of Charles Williams – A theologian and novelist much admired by C.S. Lewis; I have tried unsuccessfully to read several of his works.
3. The works of Rudy Wiebe – the most famous Mennonite novelist; I haven’t been able to get into his rather dense prose.
4. The works of Annie Dillard
David Murdoch said:
My novel has thoughtful theology with a good story (see my url).
I didn’t know that Greene had those personal problems, although I find that interesting.
Interesting post – as always. It’s something I’ve thought about a bit, because I like a good novel, but you’re right – most Christian novels are pretty appalling. As are most Christian films and music.
I think, though, the limitations are caused by the restrictions placed on literature by a lot of Christians nowadays. For instance, if you were to right a Christian novel, there are certain things you couldn’t put in – you’d have to be careful with the language, you wouldn’t show Christian people doing certain things, etc.
The sad thing about all this is that it means two things – 1) Non-Christians aren’t seeing us portrayed as we really are and 2) Christians aren’t seeing themselves portrayed as they really are, either.
We need to see people who struggle with their enthusiasm for the faith, people who struggle to love one another, people bearing grudges, the good times, the bad times, the theological insights that zoom around our head and affect the way we live – the times we struggle to find any application for theology at all. It’s a madcap life that is sometimes rewarding – but sometimes it’s the cross that Jesus talks about us bearing. And we don’t see it reflected in our novel characters.
I actually thought a while back that a TV series would be a good idea. I was actually thinking something along the lines of “Big Love”. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it’s the show about a guy with three wives in Utah. (He’d be on the radical end of Mormonism.)
If you can get past the first couple of episodes (where they were more interested in the sexual side of the whole arrangement), what made the characters so interesting was that they genuinely acted out of their religious convictions. I don’t agree with them, but it was interesting to see people who held beliefs and lived by them.
This was largely lost in the second season, where their motivations became much more about family and money and it was no longer as interesting.
But I thought that if they could make polygamists compelling, surely a compelling story of Christians and their struggles – maybe against an arc of a struggling church that’s dying on the inside – would be interesting. But if you portrayed it too realistically, Christians would tell you it had improper material. Portray it too artificially, and non-Christians wouldn’t relate. So I don’t think it will ever happen. But I like the idea.
chris walker said:
Nathan: I’ve been meaning to ask how this paper went. Specifically, did it generate much discussion? And, did people’s responses stimulate or challenge your thinking? If so, how?
I reckon we should get together to have a drink and talk about literature, theology and life — an hour or two should do it ;).