I have occasionally had the thought that modern Christian fiction has not so much departed from mainstream publishing as stayed where everyone used to be. The idea was first prompted by the Clayton Standard, which promised clean stories and “intelligent censorship” to the people – more than two million a month – who read the romance, western, sci-fi, and detective stories published in Clayton Magazines. I don’t have the evidence to support the thesis, but periodically, I read something that resurrects it.
This happened, most recently, with Pearl, a poem dating to the fourteenth century and attributed to the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Pearl tells of a father who, grieving for his dead little girl, meets her on the shores of paradise and even sees heaven. The poem is filled with scriptural allusions and theological discussion and is only slightly less religious than the Bible. It sounds like a modern Christian novel, maybe even a bit The Shack meets 90 Minutes in Heaven.
In justice to the author of Pearl, his premise is moderated in a way that The Shack – and many other stories, Christian and secular – are not. For reasons J.R.R. Tolkien explained in the introduction he wrote to his translation of the poem, Pearl is almost certainly based on the author’s real-life loss of a very young daughter. Such losses were sadly common in his time, and the tragedy of Pearl feels grounded in life (unlike the faintly lurid melodrama of The Shack, which feels like someone was trying to think of just the worst thing). Still, the premise of Pearl holds a familiar ring.
Ultimately, Pearl is set apart by its execution rather than its premise. In two significant ways it stands apart from, and perhaps above, most fiction of our own day. First, its visions of heaven and of God are strictly bound by orthodoxy, by the teachings of Scripture and the doctrines of the church. Here is no imagining of God as a woman, or even of a chatty, casual Jesus; the grieving father’s brief sight of Christ is made up of imagery from the Apostle John: Christ dressed in white with a wound in His side, the elders bowing before Him, the angels offering up incense. In its vision of heaven, Pearl is even more indebted to the Apostle John, employing his descriptions of the New Jerusalem. (Most of the poem takes place beside a river that symbolizes death – in other words, at the border between this world and the next; the father never enters heaven and is only permitted a glimpse of Jerusalem across the river.)
Secondly, Pearl distinguishes itself – from both secular and Christian fiction – by the limited ground it gives to emotion. There is no treacle here, no sappiness. The emotion is very real – the image of the father dropping his precious pearl and losing it in the grass is a painfully beautiful allegory – but it does not consume the work. In part, this is because the father’s grief is mature; he has had time to think deeply as well as feel deeply, and the poem seeks to answer him with scriptural exposition. The calm, clear-eyed debate of these passages changes the air of the entire poem.
More importantly, Pearl never goes the way of tears and warm hugs and joyful reunions on the hither shores. Father and daughter remain separated by the river, never crossing to the other. His consolation lies in other, sterner things – in the conviction that God’s way is right and his own duty is patient submission. His father’s love must be satisfied by the knowledge that his daughter is a queen in heaven, redeemed and glorified; he must resign his pearl to God.
In its reverently orthodox imagery and restraint of emotion by reason, faith, and duty, Pearl distinguishes itself from the typical Christian novel. In its unabashed religiosity and theological exposition, however, it exhibits one of the most distinctive traits of traditional Christian fiction. Mainstream fiction has moved on from such things. But whether that is due to an evolving attitude toward art or an evolving attitude toward religion is a matter for debate.