Jun 3, 2011

If Peretti had written Left Behind

"Christian fiction" is not fiction that's Christian, though that's a common mistake. Marilynne Robinson doesn't doesn't get counted as a Christian fiction writer, though she is a Christian who writes fiction. James Ellroy doesn't get classified this way, though he's a church-going Lutheran, nor does John Grisham, a Baptist, nor Denis Johnson, nor others.

The name designates not the author's faith, but the market to which the books are marketed. "Christian fiction" is a genre, and the writers are genre writers.

Which is why, most of the time, the writing is what it is.

Examples abound, criticisms multiply: some particularly bad sentences from a best-selling work I'm reading right now: "A distant trill sounded. Oh, crud! There couldn't have been a worse time for her cell phone to start ringing"; "The clement sun mixing with a soft breeze made for a perfect day. An excellent day for a walk ... if only she'd worn better shoes."

This isn't particularly aeshtetically worse than other genre fiction, though -- Left Behind or The Shunning or The Damascus Way ought not be judged against literature, but against mainstream works of genre fiction*.

Still, there are genre writers who worry about their writing, who attempt to push themselves, aesthetically,

This is what interests me, specifically, about the moment when it was possible Frank Peretti would write the Left Behind series.

I don't want to hold up Peretti as a great stylist or a great writer, and don't even know that I'd nominate him as the best writer in the Christian fiction market (though, to be fair, I'm not sure who I'd nominate for that), but he is a writer who pushes himself.

Whenever he's asked, for example, for his advice to young writers, Peretti says they should not be imitative, but should try something new, push the boundaries, and be inventive.

In some of his later work, too, Peretti attempt to do more than paint-by-numbers, and deepened his work on the level of story. For example, he gives more complexity to his villain characters. In The Visitation, for example, the bad guy -- who is an antichrist without being the antichrist, which is interesting in itself -- is evil, demon-possessed, etc., but he got that way, once we get into that back story, because of what happened to him at the hands of Christians. Not "bad" Christians, or fake Christians, either, not some random cult, but vicious believers who belong to Peretti's own version of Christianity, who ascribe to the same basic theology as the book's protagonist.

That's an interesting depth you don't find in most of the market, and that I don't see in Left Behind as it was ultimately written by Jerry Jenkins**.

The Visitation, which came out in '99, similarly portrays the diversity of Protestant Christianity with some sensitivity to how complex it is, even portraying some "liberal" Christians in a positive light, and some "conservtative" ones in a negative light, though not simply bifurcating the Christian world either. Some conservatives are shown to be simply petty and vindictive while others are well-meaning but lacking in gracefulness, and some liberals are shown as sincerely attempting to embody and live out Christian love, while others are essentially without any core, and have a spirituality that's mostly about fads and feeling good.

Considering that most Christian fiction attempts to efface any divisions or diversities of Christianity, unless it's the simple dichotomy of Christians who really believe the Bible and those who think they're Christians and are not, Peretti's more realistic depiction of the Christian world turns out to be pretty fascinating.

He also does more in that book to describe what it's actually like to live in the American Christian subculture -- to grow up in those churches and youth groups and go to a Christian college and go to those churches as a young adult and to try to work in those churches and with those people -- that any other writer I know. If you want get a sense of what it's like to be a part of the Christian subculture, the phenomenological reality of it, this is really a good place to look.

For example:
When the Sunday school hour began, everyone -- adults, teens, and little kids -- gathered in the sanctuary for opening exercises, singing songs like:
Deep and wide
Deep and wide
There's a fountain flowing deep and wide
Deep and wide
Deep and wide
There's a fountain flowing deep and wide

(hmmm) and (hmmm)
(hmmm) and (hmmm)
There's a fountain flowing (hmmm) and (hmmm)
(hmmm) and (hmmm)
(hmmm) and (hmmm)
There's a fountain flowing (hmmm) and (hmmm)

Marian had attended Baptist Sunday school, and I had gone to Pentecostal Mission Sunday school, but we both knew this song and had friends from other denominations who also knew it. Our parents probably sang it in Sunday school opening exercises just like we did. Now we were beholding the next generation of Deep and Widers singing the song and doing the "Deep and Wide" hand motions. It boggled me mind to think that kids all over North America -- maybe even the entire Western Hemisphere -- were hmmm and hmmming this very moment, or according to their respective time zones.

It also occurred to me that adults and teenagers all over North America were sitting in opening exercises with the little kids, doing that song for the zillionth time and feeling silly.
This was it. I knew I had faith.
A doubt sneaked up on me.
No, go away. No doubt, no doubt. Only believe. God has spoken to me. I've hashed it all out with him, and he has called me to pray for the sick. By his stripes we are healed. The effective fervent prayer of a righteous man can avail much.
And (a joke I find particularly funny, though maybe others don't):
'Well,' I said with a hint of sarcasm, 'I know your problem. You just need to have a Quiet Time every day; you know, read your Bible and pray.'
'I do!'
I scowled. 'That's funny. It always works for everyone else.'
Peretti also has passages that express a strained and struggling "personal relationship with Jesus" that most other Christian writers simply shy away from, though most evangelicals seem to have experienced, even if they couldn't say so or would have phrased it more religious language, like in terms of a prayer request about being thirsty or wanting to be "on fire" for God again. Peretti puts it like this: "Jesus seemed far away, and strangely enough, I was content to leave him there. I didn't want to talk to him; I feared and distrusted anything he might say to me. I was saved, sanctified, born-again, and Spirit-filled, but Jesus and I were strangers."

It would have been interesting, I think, to see some of that tension -- some of that internal critique of Christianity or evangelical culture -- working itself out in Left Behind. Those books could have been different in some really fascinating ways.

Just the contingent nature of the authorship raises, for me, I think, some questions that could have interesting answers. One would be, is it possible, even theoretically, could it be possible or could one imagine an alternative reality where possibly a best-selling Christian fiction series narrating the dispensationalist apocalypse was a great literary achievement? Could it have been masterfully done? Could it have been aesthetically experimental, a significant achievement?

And if not, why not?

(Compare or contrast Dante's Inferno and Milton's Paradise Lost -- why is Left Behind necessarily different?)

More connected to Peretti, I think there are some questions, too, that could have interesting answers and could be explored in worthwhile ways. For example: what would have happen if Left Behind contained a someone explicit critique of American Christian culture? Or, what would it have been like if evil was depicted as complicated, and faith as confused and confusing?

It's probably the case, of course, that Left Behind wouldn't have become Left Behind if Peretti had written it. For one thing he's a slower writer. For another, his stories seem to be more evolved or worked out in the writing process, and I suspect he would have had trouble following too strict of an outline. The success of the books may well be a result of the specific relationship of the two men who ultimately had their names on the cover.

Nevertheless, the offer, that bit of trivia and back story has opened, for me, some ways to think about the series, and some questions to ask.

*Unless one's consistent about it, of couse, and disapproves of Dan Brown for not being more like David Markson, Walter Mosely for not being like Robert Bolaño, etc.

**I haven't yet read Jenkins' post-Left Behind books, but I'm interested to see, when I get to them, if he, free from LaHaye and with the freedom, too, that comes from success, is able to give his characters more depth and internal complication.