What Does “Woke” Culture Have To Do With Christian Fiction?

It’s hard to believe that a novel which has both praise for its treatment of a bi-racial situation and criticism for it, is preachy. One thing that’s true about preachy fiction: readers don’t miss the point.
on Apr 26, 2021 · 7 comments

The term “woke” has been around for a while, but its wide-spread use burgeoned last year with the Black Lives Matter movement. To what does it refer? According to the Urban Dictionary “woke” means “being aware . . . knowing what’s going on in the community (related to racism and social injustice)” (as quoted by “What does ‘woke’ mean?“).

As I understand it, this “being aware” is closely aligned with “agreeing.” In other words, a person is not “woke” unless they agree that racism is systemic in America, that whites have advantages minorities don’t have, that Blacks should receive “reparations.”

It’s pretty extreme, but because it is tied to the idea of “racial justice,” it has gained a great deal of traction in the US.

I could build a case of pros and cons, but my intention is not to analyze this idea of “woke-ness.” (For a great discussion about racism here as Spec Faith, see Travis Perry’s 10-part series on the subject, starting with his August 2020 article “Let’s Talk About Race and Racism. Part 1: The Bible.”) Rather, my question is, how does this ongoing idea affect Christian fiction?

I see three broad, general responses. First, authors can ignore the subject. I can see this approach especially in books that don’t lend themselves to dealing with such a contemporary understanding of race relations. A romance for instance, or a historical that is set in 18th century France. That sort of book. To force a contemporary understanding onto the unrelated subject would be the height of preachiness.

But preachiness is a second option. I’ve seen it. The issue is not personal actions or responsibility, but group blame. The problem, as I see it, is that people don’t act consistently with the stereotypes we force on them, and to pretend that they do, doesn’t make any story seem true to life. In addition, these kinds of “message driven” novels can become transparent and predictable. Without going very far into a story, the reader can already know the desired outcome.

In this regard, novels dealing with “woke culture” are no different from any other novel that exists to pound out an agenda as opposed to telling a story.

Jesus loves the children of the world. Without irony, image copyright by Scientific American.

The third response Christian fiction can take is to expose readers to race issues or ethnic diversity. I’d even suggest that some might call this a “Biblical approach,” since the Bible advocates over and over for multinational and therefore multiracial equality in God’s sight and within His family.

Interestingly, readers have similar choices as writers have. First, readers can seek out books that, by their nature, do not address the contemporary “woke” ideas. Second, readers can accept a new kind of novel: one that has a clear message that the writer wants to deliver—either pro or con—regarding the “woke” culture. These books will be thinly veiled messages with predictable outcomes, and the reader can see through the story to the advocacy of a position, without much effort. Third, they can purposefully, and patiently seek out books that tell a story which aligns with the truth of Scripture about God’s attitude toward multi-racial issues.

To illustrate these points, I’ll hold up the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (understanding, of course, that Mark Twain did not profess Christianity or write Christian fiction. Nevertheless, we can learn lessons from his work.) First, choosing to read a book set in the American South during slave years, means that there is likely no hiding from some aspects of the subject of race. But is the novel preachy? Does it have an agenda? I’d answer No, and Yes. Most novels have an agenda, known in the literary world as the theme. Having something to say is not a problem. Saying it in a transparent way that makes the novel predictable, is a problem. Is Mark Twain’s novel preachy or predictable? I don’t think so. As evidence, I’d suggest that the “woke” culture is largely responsible for having the novel scratched off any number of school reading lists and banned by any number of libraries.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn explores themes of race and identity. A complexity exists concerning Jim’s character. While some scholars point out that Jim is good-hearted and moral, and he is not unintelligent (in contrast to several of the more negatively depicted white characters), others have criticized the novel as racist, citing the use of the word “n___” [edited] and emphasizing the stereotypically “comic” treatment of Jim’s lack of education, superstition and ignorance. (Wikipedia)

It’s hard to believe that a novel which has both praise for its treatment of a bi-racial situation and criticism for it, is preachy. One thing that’s true about preachy fiction: readers don’t miss the point. But apparently “the point” of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not as crystal clear to today’s culture as it would have been if Mark Twain had stripped away the complexity and made his point obvious and transparent.

Clearly, Mark Twain took an approach that exposed readers to race issues and ethnic diversity. Through this novel readers discover attitudes about slavery and about people, expressed by both the white character, Huck, and the black character, Jim. While race wasn’t the main focus of the novel, it was certainly a vehicle for Mr. Twain’s thoughts about morality and conscious. In fact, there is room within the novel to agree with parts and to disagree with parts, to understand individuals as well as institutions, to approve and to disapprove. In other words, readers are allowed, and encouraged, to think for themselves.

As far as I see it, this is the best kind of Christian fiction, whether dealing with “woke” culture or any other topic.

Featured photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky is the sole remaining founding member of Speculative Faith. Besides contributing weekly articles here, she blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. She works as a freelance writer and editor and posts writing tips as well as information about her editing services at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.
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  1. notleia says:

    Someone said “woke” and I am summoned.

    Awww, unwoke wypipo and their attempts to explain “woke.” I’m totes stealing this from a meme, but here’s a more cromulent explanation of “woke:”

    You know how when you’re a kid and your parents are driving and you’re all unworried about tailgaters and road ragers and drunk drivers, or just people who never learned how to use a turn signal? You might hear your parents talk about them, but generally you jump right in the car without any anxiety about what might happen.
    And then you learn to drive, and then you have some bad experiences with crappy drivers, and then you start to understand about people who camp in the left lane or people who cut you off and why they make people upset. You may prefer to avoid the interstate because high speeds and lots of cars make it all worse.

    In contrast, people like Rebecca (bless their hearts) are like people who’ve mostly driven on dirt roads all their lives. They’ve heard about traffic accidents and such, but in the circle of their acquaintance it’s mostly because someone hit a deer or because they drifted off the road and into a culvert. They don’t even really get why people who don’t use turn signals are bad because they don’t really have to use turn signals to be safe. Therefore when they get on more populated roads, they’re a frickin disaster. They encounter a roundabout and cut everyone off. They’re crap at four-way stops. They think it’s completely avoidable to get hit by another car if you drive defensively enough and don’t get that you have much less room to maneuver on city streets.

    Y’all, I get you’re trying, but you’ve never seen a roundabout, have you?

    • notleia says:

      Obligatory Lee Atwater quote:
      “You start out in 1954 by saying, “N–r, n–r, n–r”. By 1968 you can’t say “n–r”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this”, is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N–r, n–r”. So, any way you look at it, race is coming on the back-burner.”

      TL;DR: All this nattering about colorblindness hasn’t worked to solve anything. The most it’s done is give people a fig leaf about their unconscious or implicit biases.

      That’s basically what critical race theory is about: the collective weight of society’s unconscious or implicit biases about race and how that interacts with who is considered trustworthy, who is allowed to criticize institutions, etc. But that explanation may still not help anyone who doesn’t grok what “systemic” means.

      • Bill Nigh says:

        Thank God Critical Race Theory has finally solved racism.

        It really just comes down to what philosophy you buy into. That’s why there’s plenty blacks who don’t buy it. Though it’s quite popular with white people who go to universities… which is evidence of systemic racism contaminating critical race theory. Believe it to salve your white guilt. Rage against those racist conservatives till you feel anti-racist enough to walk with a skip.

        • notleia says:

          It’s pretty popular with Black people who went to university, too.

          If self-awareness is “guilt,” how nice that you’ve solved racism by absolving yourself from the start.

  2. Leanna says:

    A black character being “moral” and “not unintelligent” is complex? Now if Jim had been just plain intelligent that would been too unbelievable, right? /sarcasm

    Disclaimer: I own this book and will let my kids read it when they’re older but I definitely support its removal from school curriculum, there are much better books to use instead.

    • The complexity the quote is talking bout is not in the book itself but in people’s reactions. Some see Jim for what he is: intelligent and moral, while a number of the white people they encounter are neither. Other readers, however, claim it is racist because it used the language of the day, including the racial slur we have identified today as offensive, and because of what some consider stereotypical (to the point of comical) treatment of Jim’s superstitions and lack of education. I don’t even remember what those “comical” elements are. The clear point of the novel is to question the accepted ideas of society, including those that Huck faced as a neglected child taken into a foster home where he was expected to be “civilized.” In other words, Twain was pushing against the conventions of the day, including attitudes about race. I personally think the book gives a great background a) to understand slavery by putting a face to it and b) to discuss racism. But no one wants to discuss any more. The going idea is just push the accepted narrative and comply!


  3. notleia says:

    No seriously, who wants me to start Notleia’s Happy Pinko Meme Time so we can have more interaction on here? I’m even willing to allow off-topic rambling in the comments (truly, the comments and community would be more the point than anything edifying).

What do you think?