I still think the most God-glorifying story would be the one that marries truth and beauty.
Amen, I say. And this is not simple opinion; it is Biblically defensible. Exposure to reflections of true beauty is not only optional for Christians, but required. Right now I can think of three reasons to defend this statement, based on the Bible itself:
- The Bible shows itself as beautiful.
- The Bible tells us much about beauty.
- The Bible reveals all we need to know about our Creator, Who is beautiful.
One thing have I asked of the LORD,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD
and to inquire in his temple.
As theologian Wayne Grudem summaries, “God’s beauty is that attribute of God whereby he is the sum of all desirable qualities” (Bible Doctrine, page 100).
Believe it or not, despite all our denominations and doctrine debates (enjoyable or not), it seems more Christians agree about what truth is, than about what beauty is.
Before starting an in-depth series to tell that, maybe it would be helpful to show it.
I can’t do this without help. But I can start, by suggesting four sorts of stories, with four different ways of pairing truth and beauty. All of these are “evangelical.” Some are also controversial — thus, you may disagree with my choices of what fits in which category.
1. Neither very truthful nor very beautiful.
My nomination: The Shack.
Last year I bought a used copy. And I simply could not get into the book. If the author had front-loaded the story with the arguably heretical parts, that would have made it more interesting. (I had similar issues with The Da Vinci Code.) Instead, the introductory chapters kept giving intentional author intrusion and emotion-manipulation.
- The protagonist had a rough religious upbringing. But that was very hard to sympathize with, because his business and family life were fine.
- His daughter was abducted and killed, and worse — a clear sympathy ploy.
- Tell-not-show: I kept being informed how I should react to past abuses or present sufferings. That’s already violating even the unwritten Beauty ordinance for good books. I hadn’t even gotten to Truth violations yet.
As Fred Sanders wrote (sarcastically from a “literary snob” view, but accurately!):
The result is oppressive, as in the description of a tree that the character Mack crashes into: As he lies prone and looks up into the tree, it is said “to stand over him with a smug look mixed with disgust and not a little disappointment.” Take a moment right now, reader, to see if you can arrange your face into an expression that communicates smugness mixed with disgust and disappointment. You will find it “not a little” impossible, and you have greater expressive range than trees. This is typical of the way Young projects attitudes rather than actually describing anything.
So far as I can tell, then, The Shack rightfully takes the heat for playing loose with the truth — which already weakens true beauty. But oddly, it has escaped what could have been equally rightful criticism for being an arguably un-beautiful book.
What Christian novels seem not very beautiful or truthful?
2. Truthful, but not very beautiful.
Some years ago, I was handed a book — I don’t recall how, or who from — that argued for a specific perspective of theology within the orthodox Christian tradition. If I recall right, the main character had just graduated seminary and was confronted with a series of theological maxims that perplexed him. The challenge, leading to the plot: would he do his research, see if these things were so, and thereby have his whole world changed?
Through the rest of the book, he does his research, and — surprise, surprise — comes to believe this theological perspective. Meanwhile, in a barely related subplot, he meets a pretty girl, studies with her, and marries her. (After reading this book, I did something like this myself; I still don’t recall the narrative making me pine for the possibility!)
Later he is hired to be pastor of a church. But because he’s preaching from this doctrine perspective, folks hate him and try to throw him out. At one point he calmly, graciously lectures someone about what they’re doing wrong. Then he leaves.
I don’t remember the title. (I’m not sure I would say it here, even if I did.) What I do remember is very functional writing. Well-assembled sentences performed their jobs. Yet I don’t recall much beauty. That might have made the book, even with its author’s intention to make it basically a propaganda piece, much better. That theological view might have captivated me then. But the functional-only presentation of it never has.
What Christian novels seem truthful, but are not very beautiful?
3. Beautiful, but not very truthful.
Tomorrow I will have more about this, because inevitably this brings up the topic of Thomas Kinkade paintings. Finally I’ve figured out why people give them constructive criticism. (But in this, I do not defend personal attacks on someone who has recently passed away, or snooty everything-must-be-gritty or artists-can’t-make-money views).
In short, the problem is not that Kinkade’s paintings show a world without sin.
Instead, the problem is that Kinkade’s paintings show a world that has never had sin.
The artworks are beautiful, for sure — but not truly beautiful, because a crucial truth is missing. That truth is this: in God’s true universe, every perfect world or thing must have first passed through evil and suffering. Even God Himself did, in Christ. To portray an alternate world, without either present or past sin, seems a subtle form of rebellion. Oddly enough, it’s a rebellion against the Rebellion: I refuse to recognize the Fall.
But, more on this in tomorrow’s Rearranging Icons 4: Characters Becoming Icons.
What Christian novels seem beautiful, but are not very truthful?
4. Both beautiful and truthful.
We live for this. God Himself is both beautiful and truthful. His Word, without which we could not know Him or have faith in Him, is beautiful and truthful. The Psalms of David, the parables of Jesus, and many newer stories by Christians, are beautiful and truthful.
A dozen rush to mind. But it’s a long list, and I won’t pre-empt you listing your favorites.
What Christian novels are beautiful and truthful, as shown and told by the Word?