Should we write ‘Christian’ fiction?

Wisdom Hunter
By Randall Arthur

I like computers. Eight years ago I bought one on which to write talks and to catalogue books and articles. Four computers later, I have disks full of talks, and have finally begun to catalogue my library. Like many computer users, I have tried out a few of the thousands and thousands of public domain or ‘shareware’ programs that are available for computer users. Basically, these programs are written by people with various degrees of expertise who then circulate their program in the public domain. If you like what they’ve done and would like to use it on a regular basis, you pay a reasonable registration fee and receive a manual and any upgrades that might be forthcoming.

Computer shareware authors start at a disadvantage with me. I like things to be packaged well. If they are not, then I somehow think that they are not as good as those that are. It is a ridiculous proposal; after all, I’m not that well packaged myself, but my wife still loves me! However, (hopefully, unlike me!) shareware programs in general seem to meet my low expectations. They are generally not as good, smooth or polished as their glossy commercial equivalents. However, there are some notable exceptions, and every now and then you come across a gem of a program which is well worth the small fee.

My attitude to Christians writing fiction is like my attitude to shareware computer programs. Somehow I just don’t think that the Christian message can come from the pen of a writer of fiction. For this reason I have always kept the two categories separate. When I want to read fiction, I browse the shelves of newsagents or bookshops for favourite authors, and when I want to read Christian books, I take the trip to my favourite Christian bookshop. Recently I noticed that I am not alone. Peter Jensen in his book At the Heart of the Universe (soon to be reviewed), says much more strongly: “The idea of a self-consciously ‘Christian’ novel or painting is pathetic”.

Last month I broke out of the mould. At the suggestion of a friend, I tried one of the books of the revived genre of Christian fiction. By Christian fiction, I don’t mean fiction written by Christians for the secular market. Rather, I mean fiction written by a Christian for the Christian market (although some of the Christian non-fiction I have read in the past could almost be put in the fiction category!). The book I read was Wisdom Hunter by Randall Arthur.

Yes, I was surprised. I read it in two evenings, and found that it kept my attention and was enjoyable to boot. The story is simple enough: Jason Faircloth is the minister of a successful, large American church (or is it ‘corporation’?). He is fundamentalist in theology and ethics. The congregation loves him, and he is soaking up their praise and adoration. However, his family life is a facade, and his daughter has fled from home and married a man she had lived with for some time. In a series of Job-like experiences, Jason loses his daughter and wife, and is unable to find his grandchild. He resigns his pastorate because of doubts about his faith, and begins a search for a renewed, biblical faith which lasts over many years.

The book is well-written, and, in following the life and thought of Jason Faircloth, grapples with issues of grace, law and gospel in a contemporary manner. Although it is quite American in setting and style, the issues are ones that touch Christians in Australia as much as in America. I was personally affected as the book called to mind some of my own past experiences, and forced me to examine some of my present attitudes and practices, especially my tendency towards legalism and Pharisaism.

However, there are questions that I am left with. As I read and reflected on the book, I realized that fiction such as this teaches me by emotion and subjective experience. This is a legitimate means of teaching and one that the Bible uses itself (e.g. the narrative sections of Genesis, 1 and 2 Samuel, etc.). However, there are problems: as I read the book, I found myself convinced not to be legalistic, but when I asked myself why, I found that it was because I identified with a particular character in the story. I was not convinced because my mind had been persuaded or because the word of God had changed my perspective.

If the book is right and informed by biblical presuppositions, then this is all right to some extent; I was persuaded to change through involvement with the character in a way that straight doctrinal teaching may not have achieved. Nevertheless, I was not encouraged to engage in a biblical critique of my legalism. If the book is wrong in its thrust and informed by unbiblical presuppositions, then this is not all right; it convinces me to change without helping me to weigh up my reasons for doing so.

This is my problem with Christian fiction. Its teaching is often under the surface and not open for critical examination. This can be all right when the author is informed by biblical truth. It can be disastrous when the author is not so informed.

Finally then, this book opened my eyes to the possibilities of fiction. Why not try to write a novel that has the goal of converting people? In other words, not fiction written by Christians for Christians, but fiction written by Christians for non-Christians. Such a book could be like the testimony often given at evangelistic rallies. If we had high quality books like this, then we could give our non-Christian friends such a book as the first stage in the process of getting them to think about the Christian faith. This could be a precursor to a book like A Fresh Start by John Chapman.

My trouble is that, despite Wisdom Hunter, I’m still not convinced that Christians can write good fiction that is openly Christian. Despite it being a good read and a good buy, I’m still hesitant about the concept and about our ability.

Andrew Reid is the Anglican Chaplain to Macquarie University and also ministers at St Chad’s, Putney.

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