Realism, truth, beauty, message, God-glorifying, entertaining. Spec Faith has examined and re-examined these various aspects and purposes for writing and reading stories, and yet we are confronted, as we were these past two weeks in our guest posts, by a book like A Throne of Bones by Vox Day and an imprint like Hinterlands by a Christian publisher like Marcher Lord Press, and the old question re-surfaces: what are Christians doing when we read and write stories? What should we be doing?
Unsurprisingly, we are, in part, a product of our culture, so what we understand about story today has been influenced by postmodern thought. Consequently, it’s easy to discount or downplay “message” in a story and to emphasize the need for artistic value–from which a great deal of the push for realism comes.
Art is more important than message because the latter essentially declares that there is an absolute for everyone–something incongruent with postmodern thought. On the other hand, art is about beauty and truth–beauty being in the eye of the beholder and truth, determined by what is true for each individual.
The postmodern view of story, then, seems to downplay the idea that writers can and should communicate what they believe through the intertwining of a plot, characters, and a storyworld. Rather, stories, while being necessarily gritty to show the real world, should at the same time be purposefully ambiguous so readers can reach their own conclusions.
Of course this view of story has merits. Educators tell us that true learning takes place when a student appropriates knowledge for himself instead of simply interacting with facts on an intellectual level. Stories that make a difference, then, would seem to be the ones that do not draw a nice, neat conclusion: therefore, because our hero gave his life to Christ, you also should go and do likewise [overt conclusion]; or even our hero became a Christian and now he’s happier than any time in his life because things are going so well [implied conclusion].
The large elephant postmodernism ignores, however, is Truth–not the relativistic kind that shifts from person to person, but the absolute kind that doesn’t require anyone to believe it because it remains no matter what. The belief in absolute truth, we’re told, is the cause of religious fanaticism and intolerance–and this the postmodern thinker believes absolutely!
The fact is, absolute truth supersedes cultures and individuals and theories and philosophies. And guess what. Story does too. Jesus demonstrated this clearly in the parables He told. His stories spoke to first century Jews living in Judea but also to twenty-first century Gentiles living in Taiwan or Kenya or France or Mexico or Australia. His stories resonate with children in Sunday school or adults in Bible study. His stories make people laugh and cry and sit up, amazed, but they also prompt people to go and sin no more.
Consequently, many people have pointed to Jesus’s use of stories as an example for writers today, and I concur. When various people asked Jesus a question (IE, “Who is my neighbor?”) He answered by telling a story. Unlike postmodernism stories, however, His were never pointless nor were they caught up needlessly with gritty details. “A man fell among thieves” did not become a litany of the battering he took or the curses his assailants uttered as they attacked him.
So by looking at Jesus, what can we conclude Christians should be doing in regard to reading and writing stories?
One group advocates the approach of the apostle Paul in Athens, using Greek poetry and their religious system to make a case for Christ. Are we to win some by being all things to all people?
Should we seek to win the hard drinking and hard swearing jock by writing stories filled with drinking and swearing? Since real people do drink and swear and assault people and have affairs, since real people are prostitutes or frauds or terrorists, shouldn’t our stories show them in all their ugliness and need–without, of course, delivering a message of change or redemption since that would be unrealistic and preachy.
Others answer this approach as LukeLC did in a comment to “Marcher Lord Press And The Hinterlands Imprint“:
if the world could be won with the world’s ways, it would have won itself to Christianity long ago. What you win people with is what you win them to. If you attempt to win the unsaved to an appreciation of Christianity because, hey, we have Christian novels with all the same stuff as non-Christian novels…but different, all you’ll end up doing is proving to the unsaved that they’ve got no need for Christianity.
I suggest we Christians have gotten bogged down because we have focused on the meta-story, the overarching story of Mankind’s fall and God’s redemption through the death and resurrection of His Son. It seems as if we all want to be seed sowers when in fact some of us should be soil tillers or weed diggers or scarecrow makers or rock removers. Perhaps, for example, we should tell stories illustrating the existence of absolute truth so that readers will be alert and open to hearing about the One who is Truth. In other words, perhaps we should be more focused on telling micro-stories that address the issues that make belief in the meta-story difficult. This, rather than a focus on “realism,” seems to me to address readers across generations and cultures.