Fiction and faith

At least for the past week, I’ve been able to keep up with my pledge to myself to make more time for reading, and I finally finished a book I’d been at for a long time. Of Fiction and Faith: Twelve American Writers Talk about Their Vision and Work, by W. Dale Brown. It was published in 1997, so it’s a little out of date in some ways, especially since some of the interviews took place in the early 90s. All this talk about the first Gulf War, and newspapers still being viable, and hardly anything about the internet.

The fiction and faith thing is a subject I’ve been interested in for a long time, so the book gave me a lot to think about. The writers interviewed are mostly lit fiction folks, so I had to grit my teeth at a lot of comments about how fantasy fiction can’t be considered art. Most of the writers in the book don’t really write “Christian” fiction (i.e., the stuff you find in Christian bookstores), even if they’re writing about God and faith.

One of the things I noticed was that, with few exceptions, the writers featured in the book were all quite liberal, politically. I guess since that’s where I find myself, it doesn’t surprise me that writers who wrestle with issues of faith and redemption in their work would have a similar outlook. But I do know Christian writers who aren’t writing standard Christian bookstore fare, who are not any more interested in providing easy but unsatisfying answers than I am, who are more conservative, politically. So I wondered if there was some sort of selection bias, as to the writers who were chosen. Few were genre writers–are genre writers more likely than literary fiction writers to have conservative politics? I don’t know.

Another thing that I came away with–something I’d already been thinking that was reinforced, really–is how easily and unfortunately we dichotomize. Many of the writers spoke of being too religious for secular readers, but too secular for religious readers. Fiction is religious, or secular. We’re Republicans or Democrats (at least in the country I’m living in). We’re intellectual, or uneducated. And Mississippi-born author Will Campbell, in his interview, talks about how contrary this is to the teaching of the New Testament, and yet how endemic it is in so many churches to do it anyway

“If you start saying, ‘Brothers and sisters … worldly standards no longer count in our estimate of anything. What this means is there’s no such thing as race … What this means is there’s no such thing as communism and capitalism and North Vietnam and South Vietnam. These are human categories, human standards, and Paul says these are no longer of any account. You don’t consider these things anymore.’ That’s when you start getting into trouble.”

Campbell’s mostly talking about his involvement in the civil rights movement, but I was really struck by how it applies to so many things, and how far I fall short of the standard God calls us to. I mean, this judging of people (or ideas, or works of art) by the categories you’ve put them into isn’t a problem that the church has exclusively. Literary fiction writers and critics disdain genre fiction. The college-educated look down on those with only a highschool degree (or less). People who eat exclusively natural and organic food look down on those who live off frozen entrees from the chain grocery store. But Christians fall into it, too, me as much as anyone else, and I was kind of moved by the reminder of how wrong-headed it is.

I’m not advocating the kind of tolerance where no one should express strong opinions about anything, or disagree with anyone else. I just mean that, all too often, we dismiss someone or something because of the category we’ve put them into. And even though I might not like it being done to me, I do it to others. I don’t want people deciding not to read my stories because they’ve found out I’m an evangelical Christian. But I tend to dismiss pretty much all Christian popular fiction (the stuff that Christian publishing houses produce, and that’s sold in Christian bookstores) as insipid and not worth my time. I get irritated if lit majors think my fiction can’t possibly be worth reading because it’s mostly science fiction and fantasy. But I make the same judgment about romance. I don’t want people at church to think I’m a bad person because I would vote for the Democrats if I were a US citizen, and think abortion and gay marriage should be legal. But I’m pretty quick to judge all the Republicans at church because of the policies of their party on the environment, international policy and domestic social issues.

I’ve heard secular humanists say that this kind of judging based on having categorized someone as “other” is the fault of religion (or maybe even the fault of Christianity, specifically). But I don’t think it is. I think it’s a very human instinct (or perhaps an animal instinct), and I think it’s one of the things that the Christian faith explicitly commands us to put behind us.

We just don’t do a very good job.

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