You might think we’re living in an age remarkable for its low level of culture and thought. People on all sides of every ideological coin focus on the negative. Doom and gloom prophecies (of vastly different styles) sound loudly on every digital crossroads. And yet, if you tune out the noise, you’ll see a lot of interesting things happening.
One of them is a robust conversation about the role of the Christian artist in an increasingly un-Christian society. This conversation, by the way, is one that concerns everyone, not just the Christian author and reader.
The Christian Artist in an un-Christian Society
I’ve written before about what the bookstore owners call “Christian fantasy”. If you already don’t know, I go into detail in my writer’s manifesto. Though I risk generalization here, I will say that I tend to stay away from Christian fantasy, in spite of the fact that I’m a Christian. I tend to gravitate less toward writers who use their faith as a battle-cry, more toward those who let it infuse their worldview in subtle ways. Yes, I prefer Tolkien to Lewis for that reason.
I also really enjoy the criticism of people like Stephen Greydanus (film), Alissa Wilkinson (culture in general), and Jeffrey Overstreet, himself a published fantasy author. These Christian men and women of letters are sensitive to what is often called “faith-based” culture, which exists in its own ideological bubble, unaware of the real world. They often take Christian artists to task for not engaging in the culture in interesting and fruitful ways.
For such writers (myself included) there is, however, a subtle temptation to hide or downplay our own Christianity. Or at least as far as it concerns our art. The reasons are not that simple, either. Too often there’s a perception of Christianity as a system of prohibitions, not a way of life. And too often Christians themselves are guilty of perpetuating this false reality. Add to that the second-rate quality of much Christian fiction and film (God is Not Dead, anyone?).
Further complicating all this is the reality that no Christian can avoid. Our lives are, whether we like it or not, evangelical. We can’t just be writers and not Christians. We can’t in good conscience “cut out” our Christianity from our art, because Christianity is a worldview, a way of life, not an ideology. People judge everything we do and create through that prism, whether it’s fair or not.
But if there’s even a whiff of preachiness about your life or your fiction, then everyone tunes out. Or gets angry.
You see the dilemma, don’t you?
A light so lovely…
Madeleine L’Engle, herself a Christian who avoided the label “Christian writer,” put it very well in one of my favorite quotes of all time:
We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.” (Walking on Water)
This is easily said, not so easily done. First of all, many people, especially nowadays, may wonder why it’s so necessary for Christians to draw people to Christ in the first place. Why can’t we just live and let live? And this is an important question for any Christian to consider. Too often we have an almost predatory attitude toward non-Christians, as though if only we were to convert them, we’d get some extra-special present.
There’s a degree of fear and insecurity in that sort of evangelization. Not surprisingly, it turns people off, and rightly so.
Plus, and this is the real kicker, many Christians don’t actually know this “light that is so lovely.” We haven’t experienced it. We may not even be looking for it. And how, then, can we ever dream of showing it to other people without any expectation on our part, simply as a gift to those we love?
So yes, being a Christian writer is an ethical choice that should involve constant self-improvement in the service of one’s art. Because who wouldn’t want to share a light so lovely that all people want, with all their hearts, to know the source of it? The how of this process is complicated and requires its own post (or book, or lifetime of study, or…)
For now, I’ll limit myself in considering two Christian fantasy authors who have both attempted this, but in different ways.
The Song of Albion
The first way is exemplified by Stephen R. Lawhead in his “Christian fantasy” series The Song of Albion. Without being warned of it in advance, you might never think this was a Christian fantasy at all. It’s set in what seems like a pre-Christian pagan version of the British Isles. But what it turns out to be is the realm of the fair folk, the Perilous Realm. And everything about it is infused with a Christian worldview. It has a palpable sense of divine grace running through the plot. The songs could almost be hymns. The wages of sin and the seeking (and cost) of virtue are central themes.
But it’s not really a Christian fantasy at all. It’s a gritty, beautiful, lyrical work of prose that everyone can enjoy (if you can stomach some pretty brutal violence, that is). It’s an honest look at human nature in all its glory and darkness, and it’s ultimately hopeful in its assessment of man. Finally, it has moments of sublime beauty that really do give the reader an inkling of a transcendent light behind the curtain. I’ve only read the first two of the series so far, but I would not hesitate to recommend it as good semi-historical fantasy fiction that competes with the best.
The second approach
C. J. Brightley, another talented author of fantasy, chose a different way. She wrote a surprisingly beautiful urban fantasy novel titled Things Unseen. Now, I don’t read urban fantasy. I don’t like it. I never would have even picked it up if I hadn’t read a snipped of chapter 1 at the end of another book entirely. But what I read captivated me.
The setting is dystopian in a creeping, dreadful way. There are hints of horrors that happen offstage. The main character is searching for some meaning in a world denuded of it. And she finds it in a very unexpected way–in the world of the Fae.
These Fair Folk are different from anything you’ve read. They’re more similar to vampires (which, it turns out, is not an accident). Still, they have a fascination to them that’s more earthy than sparkly. Though they live in a faded world, their song can recall the wonders of lost things like trees and waterfalls and the sea.
The book ends abruptly, and there’s a hint of a Christian connection, but it’s never more than a hint. And in a dystopian setting, it makes sense in terms of plot and character.
Book 2 continued the wonderful style and story. But right in the beginning (chapter 2, I think), the author suddenly launches into a full-on Protestant catechism. By this point, the reader is engaged with the story and characters, and the catechism is an important part of the plot. Still, it’s a gamble on the part of the author, one that works for some people and doesn’t for others, judging by the reviews on Amazon.
Which is better?
While Lawhead’s approach is specifically geared at a wide audience, its lack of a clear Christian “message” may, in fact, deter some Christians from picking it up. As for Brightley’s approach, she seems to be writing more specifically for a Christian audience with the hope that the popularity of urban fantasy and dystopia in general might lead to some cross-over with the general market.
And who am I to say which way is better? Maybe Christians should focus on writing for Christians, and some curious folks might read our work and find it beautiful. But for myself, I’m inclined to prefer the Lawhead approach. My own books, with their demi-gods and Slavic-inspired mythical creatures and semi-pagan milieu, are firmly in the Lawhead camp.
What do you think? Which is the better approach? Or are they both worthwhile?