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.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