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  Tell Me a Story, Just a Story:
The New Christian Literary Writing

by Albert Haley

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Abilene Christian University

LINE OF DUTY: short story by Albert Haley (In Mars Hill Review)


It seems a commonplace in the literary world to expect that when a Christian takes up the pen or places fingers on a keyboard, bad things will happen. As anyone knows who has ever perused what is published by the Christian Booksellers' Association, the writing that results is too often:

1. mentally unchallenging
2. stylistically nil
3. theologically suspect
4. pure genre, formula writing (with attendant weak characterization and overemphasis on plot)

Such productions may actually sell quite well among Christians themselves. (I'm thinking of that ubiquitous series in shopping malls, grocery stores, and airports across the land about end times that itself seemingly has no end to its authors' sequelizing.) However, if success is measured by something other than sales, such as whether the book will be enshrined in libraries, discussed by critics, and read ten years from now, these books by Christians are failures. They are vapid communications that will soon evaporate from our minds and be forgotten.

Other times – and I've done this myself – the Christian writer's labors add up to an earnest attempt to combine faith concerns and beliefs in a contemporary tale that ultimately fails because the story wears God too much on its sleeve. The writer obviously and keenly wants the reader to feel charitable toward the Christian faith, yet you know how readers tend to be – reluctant, stubborn, and "Hey, can't you just tell me a story and leave me alone?" These stories and books, no matter how well written, usually are unpublishable. They're not genre'ish enough for Christians who would prefer simpler fare, and they're too dogmatically Christian for the general booksellers (ABA) market.

In both these cases, the literary world turns away for understandable reasons. That's because a vital, credible piece of fiction of the type that is a candidate for a long-term berth in the library needs to be both artfully done (evidence a high level of craft and characterization) and it needs to engage the reader's sympathies through the story rather than the author's bearing down on his/her own agenda/dogma.

Examples of what I'm talking about:

  • The Left Behind series does not strive to be artful and its agenda arrives with the force of a sledgehammer aimed at the reader's head.
  • On the other hand, a failed novel I have in the drawer is artful, but it protests too loudly in the lines, and between them too, that this God thing might be worth investigating.

It's not like I haven't thought seriously about what I'm doing with my writing, taken into account what others say, and searched for role models. When I read Madeleine L'Engle's book Walking On Water, I jotted down the following:

Not long ago a college senior asked if she could talk to me about being a Christian writer. If she wanted to write Christian fiction, how was she to go about it? I told her that if she is truly and deeply a Christian, what she writes is going to be Christian, whether she mentions Jesus or not. And if she is not, in the most profound sense Christian, then what she writes is not going to be Christian no matter how many times she invokes the name of the Lord.

Then, I was reading an interview with Doris Betts, another believing, high quality literary writer and she said:

Students often want to write stories that illustrate some statement of theme, some didactic epigram; they want to send a philosophical message in a bottle to the reader. I tell them that who they are and what they believe will get into their stories the same way it gets into their lives—it will sink below the surface like a stain; it will be inside the story the way the peach seed is inside the peach.

Practical advice here. Both women seem in essence to say, "Just write and write well. The faith dimension you wish to impart to your work will then come out naturally."

Initially this sounded good to me. Certainly this advice allows one to avoid being a dispenser of dogma, a propagandizer. How can I propagandize if the Christian basis of my story is as deep as the pit in the peach? The reader only knows that I'm offering him/her juicy bites of peachy, delicious fruit.

But before I can accept what L'Engle/Betts have to say I have to ask, "What is propaganda?"

Meditating upon the word I realize that propaganda doesn't always take its inspiration from something untruthful per se. For example, I can write propaganda about altruism (think of the popular youth novels produced by Horatio Alger during my grandparents' day). Altruism is a good, pure, and true thing. I can likewise be a propagandist for love. What's so wrong with that? "The world needs love, sweet love;" it's a cliché, yes, but the world is dying for lack of this cliché. So why can't I just hang love boldly on the line the way I do my laundry and who cares if a few in the neighborhood think it's unsightly? Of course, I can choose to treat love this way, and the best means available to me as a writer (i.e., most likely to be well received by the audience) is to write some type of romance novel. But by becoming at least a partial propagandist for love, I will by definition fail the test of being artful which necessarily implies being a bit subtle, having enough imagination not to do the most obvious thing, in other words being even more creative than the writers who have gone before me. All that flapping laundry is, in the end, a bit showy and déclassé. My romance novel will probably be another throwaway product, not much more memorable than hundreds of others published in the same year.

I run another risk in writing propaganda – even if what I write it about happens to be true.

Propaganda always presents an incomplete picture. It's an efficient shortcut, usually driven by the fact that the person behind the propaganda is so sure of his/her truth that there seems little need to build a case. Let's just get straight to what people need to know/believe, the propagandist thinks. Back to Horatio Alger whose novels popularized for a while the concept of altruism. In Alger's world the altruistic person is always embraced, always succeeds, and always is rewarded in the end. Difficulties along the way are just that: along the way. Alger's stories are fantasies. If he had given us a true, non-propagandizing view of altruism it would have required longer books and writing of a different kind. For example, it would have included persecution and severe doubt in which the altruist asked, "Why am I doing this?" If you want to see this difference, read Mr. Ives's Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos in which an authentically good man (he's also a devout Catholic) receives terrible, random evil from life. In effect, his goodness is painfully crucified for most of the novel and he emphatically never receives recompense for the son he lost (how could he?) and he comes very close to being bitter. He certainly never again has the buoyant happiness that once characterized him before all the troubles befell him. Yet even in the end he does good things, expecting nothing in return.

Of course, propaganda will always be the likely refuge for someone who doesn't have truth at all, not that they necessarily recognize this. Usually the propaganda is dispensed by true believers, and the propaganda serves not only to recruit others but to allow the true believers to uncritically continue in their own lies. National socialism and Soviet communism are famous examples. Neither of these world views had the truth about humanity. If the proponents of these views had given a complete, nonpropagandistic view of their beliefs, their movements would have collapsed; no one could have believed them. This is why there were things in Nazi propaganda films like a scene of a long-bearded Jew in grubby clothes crudely stuffing food into his mouth and then a jump cut to an image of a rat running along a gutter. The shortcut, propaganda message was "Jews are vermin." If Jews were dealt with truthfully, the film would have had to show some Jews without beards, without dirty clothes, Jews kissing their babies, Jews helping Gentiles, Jews imparting great value to the society they lived in, in other words, Jews behaving like the kind of valid humans every Aryan believed himself to be.

Christians have truth. We have to believe that. Because we have truth, we not only can afford to give a complete picture (our faith and truth will not collapse), we are obligated to do so. If we fall by reflex into shortcuts and don't tell the whole truth, we're not really describing Christianity. We're giving a picture of a wishful, somewhat superstitious religion and painting rainbows upon the sky. We're propagandists.

This brings me back to L'Engle and Betts. I commend them for avoiding the temptation to propagandize. On the other hand, I've seen many high-caliber, literary Christian writers take refuge in just such a stance (God will be in your story no matter what you write) and produce writing that does not seem identifiably Christian. In fact, without hours and hours of probing (and who reads a novel like that?) I would honestly be hard pressed to find that hard, holy peach pit at the center of the work. The Christianity is backgrounded in some minor minor character who says something about God on p. 211 or there is the way the image of water keeps coming up and must be intended as some kind of symbol. It's a little like the old Clairol commercial in which "Only her hairdresser knows." Apparently only the writer and God know this novel was written by a Christian. I prefer something more intentional such as I find in my own role models: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Graham Greene, and Flannery O'Connor and I might even add Chaim Potok since I think Judaism can teach me something about my God. What I admire in these writers is the way they focus either on 1) believing characters who struggle with faith or 2) non-believers who are seekers (often without knowing it).

This leads to the main advice I have for today's serious Christian writer. It takes its inspiration from what our Native American, African American, Asian American , Hispanic, and even gay writers have done.

Write about our people.

I say write about them without apology. Write about them with the diversity that is in their mix (Christians are not all the same). Write about them and show them to be what they are: human beings.

Can this be done? If I write about Christians, doesn't that require portraying their beliefs and wouldn't I be propagandizing on their behalf? Not necessarily. Consider how the best Native American writers write about contemporary Indian characters: they don't require me to think 1) the author thinks Native Americans are better, 2) the author thinks I should become Native American, 3) the author thinks Native Americans are just deluded freaks and suitable only for satire.

Instead, I usually walk away from these books thinking that to be an Indian in this culture today is to face enormous pressures, including an identity crisis based on changes that have come since the ancestors' day, and yet there is something at the core of being Indian that is beautiful, true, and valuable and can still, at moments, make one's heart sing.

I don't see why I can't treat Christians with the same kind of dignity and interest in their humanity and unique culture as has been done by the Native American writer for his/her own people.

Of course, one might object, "But those Native Americans are intrinsically interesting. They have a history. The Indian Wars, Geronimo, Sitting Bull. But Christians? Who wants to read about Christians? We're just odd people. At best a Christian character is suitable for a story about a laughable, eccentric (think of how many preacher-in-decline novels have been written). Really now, you expect us to take Christians seriously?"

Yes. I do. I think it can be done.

First off, our oddness is an asset. A valuable facet of fiction is that it can show what some overlooked corner of the world is like in-depth, even better than film, because fiction can chart the emotional landscape that accompanies the outer terrain. This journalistic aspect of bringing the news of the day is always part of the best novels whether it's Fitzgerald's showing us in The Great Gatsby how the rich live on Long Island circa 1925 or Jonathan Franzen's recent The Corrections portraying how the hours are spent on a cruise ship full of old geezers. If we're not using fiction as a tool to pretend we can convert others, the world is naturally curious about what Christians (not Christian caricatures) are really like. What is a church potluck? Why do people sip grape juice and nibble crackers? What's a home Bible study? They don't have a clue about what goes on in our houses and inside the churches.

The other thing fiction does is show the "truths" characters live by and holds them up to scrutiny. Will these truths prove sustaining for the characters? In the case of ethnic fiction, I've noticed that the characters tend to either discover an individual truth that allows them to live in a world that persecutes their kind or they find truth in the ethnic community itself and learn to band together. Generally (with exceptions like Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man) this generates hope. This tension between individual faith and communal faith, with both of them up against a marginalizing society, is a major component of the Christian life. It could be reflected more in fiction by Christian writers. I would love to read some novels in which the writer had a main character who wrestled with how can I continue to believe in God if I have to accept as brothers and sisters so many nutty, flawed fellow believers?

The last thing I have to offer is that I think there are two basic Christian/God stories. They are archetypal. We find many examples of these two stories in the Old Testament. When we arrive in the New Testament, we see Jesus casting the two stories as parables. The first story is arguably his most famous parable. The second story is less talked about, but it has probably affected more people than anyone can ever know.

Story #1: A person who knows God turns away and seeks other "gods." When he/she comes to his senses, he returns and recovers faith at a higher level. (the prodigal son)

Story #2: A person who does not really know God moves farther and farther away, heading toward life-threatening peril. He/she is found by God in some version of a miracle(s) and comes to belief and joins the flock of the faithful. (parable of the lost sheep)

We can write about these two stories. I don't mean slavishly imitate them, but use them as the broad outline for our own tales. To inspire us, there are literally hundreds of thousands of true versions of these two stories in the world today, not to mention how many exist in history. No two of the stories are the same. They are nuanced. Each human is different, so something unique is required for each person in order to turn him/her around and come back to God or for God to find them in the first place. There's also the story of how sometimes the prodigal doesn't make it all the way home or the sheep falls off the cliff before the master finds it. (This is where most secular literary fiction pessimistically dwells; even if there is a God, the thought is, humans don't have what it takes to get to Him).

To end this ramble, here are two inspirations from literature I would commend to the literary Christian writer, one long, one short. Read:

1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I believe the novel should have been called Levin. Levin is Tolstoy's hero. Anna serves as a counterpoint to Levin as she seeks happiness in love and sensuality and riches and fails utterly to find what she is looking for. Levin, who has property and marries a good wife, still doesn't have what he needs until he finds God. Levin's journey toward God is long (this is a fat novel) and most of the time he doesn't even really know he's headed that way, making him akin to the sheep who innocently, unknowingly wandered off and must be found by the Good Shepherd.

2. "Parker's Back", one of Flannery O'Connor's last three stories (she was revising it in the hospital as she lay dying). Woman lovin', good boyin' O. E. Parker is a seemingly shallow man who hates religion, yet something drives him to marry the most religious, and dour, of women, Sarah. Over the course of the story it seems like Parker's a wasted prodigal trying to recover his memory of God, even to the extent of tattooing an image of Christ on his back. And there is divine help in the form of a tree that burst into flames à la the burning bush in the desert, and this propels Parker further in his quest to come to the tree of life. Yet because the story is nuanced (true) it doesn't have a pasted-on happy ending. O'Connor wrote in a letter, "Fiction is about everything human, and we are made of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty then you shouldn't try to write fiction. It's not a grand enough job for you." Keeping that sentiment in mind, it's not surprising that O'Connor is nearly without equal at giving her characters a chance at redemption, then recognizing that 1) they may refuse it, end of story or 2) if they take the chance, they may enter into a harder, persecuted life. That's the dust and difficulty of life – even if you're a Christian. Flannery O'Connor reminds me that I'm not a Christian because it "makes my life easier or happier"; I'm a Christian first of all because it is true.

Albert Haley
Writer In Residence
Assistant Professor of English
ACU Box 28252
Abilene Christian University
Abilene, TX 79699

posted July 5, 2002
Judy Alexander, webmaster