What Makes a Book
By Kristen McCarty
April 13, 2006
When I was a teenager, there was a movement that taught everything was harmful unless it fell under the specific label of "Christian." This movement encouraged young people to burn or throw away all music that wasn’t "Christian" and assumed that any film rated R could not be "Christian." This kind of thinking still makes waves today. A friend of mine teaches high school English and told me that over the summer, her students were assigned to read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. One student took the book to a Christian sports camp and had the book confiscated by a counselor who asked if it was "Christian" and apparently came to the conclusion that it was not. The student did get the book back at the end of camp, but I suspect with dire warnings about the dangers that lie within such pagan pages.
The problem one encounters when setting out to read only "Christian" fiction is how to define or label it as such. Do these books consist of those that are sold exclusively in Christian bookstores? Books that are endorsed by Christian magazines or leaders? Books written by people who call themselves Christian? Or does it have more to do with the subject matter between the covers? If so, must the subject matter avoid characters who sin, or is that acceptable as long as a character in the book condemns the sin? Must the plot include the plan of salvation or references to God or church? Must it teach an obvious moral lesson?
Madeleine L’Engle, a prolific author best known for her award-winning children’s book A Wrinkle in Time, writes extensively about the connection of faith and art in her nonfiction book, Walking on Water. She says, "Christian art? Art is art, painting is painting; music is music; a story is a story. If it’s bad art, it’s bad religion, no matter how pious the subject—and there the questions start coming, questions which it would be simpler to evade." She expounds upon the theory that all art—true art—comes from God whether the artist acknowledges it or not.
I have intelligent and fair-minded friends who won’t read books where adultery is featured in the plot. I do understand where they are coming from. There are books that glamorize adultery or, worse, find ways to normalize or justify it. But to not read Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina for such a reason would be a mistake. In both books, the tragic consequences of extra-marital affairs are explored, the pain and anguish that spouses and children go through, the devastating effects on a person’s character.
As Stephen Dunn admits in his poem "Loveliness," "I’ve read books that slowed down a life long enough for me to enter it …" When we are able to enter into a life, slow down and see a person’s heart and motivation, see the effects their choices make on the world around them, it can sometimes save the reader from having to make those same mistakes. Almost as important, when we enter a life through a book, sometimes we are granted the precious gift of compassion. The author Azir Nafisi, writing about the habit of her government in Iran of banning books based on their immorality, says in Reading Lolita in Tehran, "You don’t read books such as Gatsby to find out whether adultery is good or bad, but to learn about how complicated issues such as adultery and fidelity and marriage are. The biggest sin is to be blind to others’ problems and pain. Not seeing them means denying their existence.” It is impossible to follow the overused adage, "Love the sinner, hate the sin" without truly knowing the sinner and understanding and even grieving over the consequences of sin.
It becomes possible to see through the eyes of someone who is angry at God or frightened of religion in books by Graham Greene, even though the details of the author’s personal life do not recommend him to us as a Christian role model. We can learn about the plight of the poor or gain a godly hunger for social justice in books such as The Jungle by Upton Sinclair or Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton, whether the authors or their intent is religious or not. Reading Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, which centers around a character chained by bitterness and unforgiveness, can conversely show us the beauty in mercy and grace. Reading a story about a character wandering aimlessly through his life without God, as in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, can conversely make us appreciate the difference that living a life with God can make.
"Information washes over us like a sea, and recedes without leaving its traces behind. Wrestling with truth, as the story of Jacob warns us, is a time-consuming process that marks us forever," says Susan Wise Bauer, author of The Well-Educated Mind. Through true art, we shall know the truth, whether from sources labeled safely as "Christian" or at times from far more secular sources, and as we wrestle with the truth, it does very often set us free. Free from making the same mistakes as the characters in the story, free to be compassionate and forgiving with those who take different paths than we do, free to struggle with what it means to be human and what it means to be a follower of Christ.
In conclusion, the best question to ask about a novel may not be, "Is this book Christian?" Perhaps it would be better to ask if the book qualifies as art. Does it point us to truth? Does it challenge us to change or grow? Because if the answer is yes, then we know that there is a good chance God will use that book in our lives, whether it is sold at our local Christian bookstore or not.