Aug 12, 2011

'Christian fiction is fiction from a Christian worldview'

Christian fiction is probably the only popular genre with an identity problem.

Everyone knows what Romance fiction is. No one ever asks, "what is crime fiction?"

But Christian fiction ...

It's the third most popular genre on e-readers, and makes up a large part of the religious market that accounts for 10 percent of all book sales in the United States. Titles from the genre regularly make it to the New York Times best-seller list. Yet, still, people ask what exactly is Christian fiction?

It's not just those who haven't read any, either. Among the authors themselves, sometimes there's this question.

A survey of some authors recently turned up one answer, which is worth inquiring into. Though there was some variety of answers (a couple of which come close to my own), one version of the answer was dominant:

"Christian fiction is fiction written from a Christian world view."

Athol Dickson came up with that precise formation, but others put it similarly (Winter Peck: "Fiction that is written with a Christian Worldview"; Susan Meissner: "Christian fiction is a story told from a Christian worldview"; Mary DeMuth: "Christian fiction is a well told story from a Christian worldview"). And many others said essentially the same thing, expanding only on specifics about the "Christian worldview."

There are several things to look into, here. For one, this definition marks a change from previous periods of Christian fiction, where the work was primarily meant to be didactic or evangelistic. How did that change happen, and why? A lot of the really classic, historic examples of the genre are didactic, and yet the genre booms, as a genre, at the same time there's this idea such works could be evangelical. Maybe there's a history to be written there.

It would also be worthwhile to trace a history just of that word "worldview" as it passed from the discourse of German theorists such as Kant, who used it first, and Freud, and so on, to the discourse of American Evangelicals, for whom it is absolutely central today.

There are also less obvious things about this definition I want to think about more carefully. Like, "from."

What does "from" mean in "fiction from a Christian worldview."

I can think of several answers to that:

First, I think these authors mean "by." There's the idea that Christian fiction is fiction authored by someone with a Christian worldview. Interestingly, this possibly gets around the quandary of why novels by Christians, e.g. James Ellroy, aren't shelved under that heading. One could say, well, he may be Christian, but he doesn't have a Christian worldview. Which is debatable, of course. Ellroy's full of violence and sadism, obsession and sex, for example, calls himself the "demon dog" and says sundry other foul things, but he's also very, very Lutheran in his sense of pervasive sin, his sense of the futility of good works, and his articulation of grace as deeply, deeply unmerited. So, is this not a Christian worldview? The argument that he's not a Christian fiction writer because he doesn't write from a Christian worldview (although he may personally be a Christian) just kind of delays this argument one degree. This is a problematic idea of the "from" of the definition. It's too simplistic.

It might be nice for Christian fiction writers to be able to say it's this simple, that there work is Christian fiction because they are fiction writers who are Christians, especially if they're fighting against an attitude that Christian fiction necessarily means bad fiction, but it's a weak argument.

It's also short through with the intentional fallacy. It's the first obvious explication of "from," though.

Second, "from," in "Christian fiction is fiction from a Christian worldview," could be understood as meaning that the fictional world operates according to the same laws, the same rules, as the ones Christians view as really operational in the world. So, perhaps, if Christians believe redemption is always possible in life, then redemption is staged as being always possible in this fiction. If, say, Christians don't believe in an amoral universe, that is, a universe where immoral actions are without any negative consequences, or a nihilistic one, where actions have no meaning and are ultimately absurd and pointless, then fiction "from" this worldview wouldn't construct worlds in that way. There would be consequences for actions, meaning for actions, etc.

That locks this fiction into a kind of realism, in that the fictional worlds are supposed to operate according to the same rules and the real world (and on the same trajectory), but that may not be a problem for the authors giving this answer. There are obviously fantasy works, and so on, but they too could be seen as illuminating and demonstrating how this world operates.

That might be an interesting way to explain how this fiction is supposed to be escapist, and also not.

That version of "from" would have, too, the possible effect of sharply constricting the genre, keeping some things out. There would still be the problem that once the worldview was actually articulated, those clear lines would quickly become problematic. Stephanie Myers Twilight series, for example, very likely fits under any definition of a Christian worldview, in this sense cosmic moral operations, that Ted Dekker can be made to fit under.

That is probably the most workable version of the definition that would still be recognizable to the authors, though.

A third one, which I find curious, though it's certainly not the point that was being made: could Christian fiction be "from" a Christian view in the way that it's narrated?

Several people make the point that the main character of Christian fiction doesn't have to have a Christian worldview/be a Christian (which lends support to the second version of what "from" means), but this is a slightly different question. Could the narrator be a non-Christian?

Could the narrator be unreliable, in the sense of narrating from a non-Christian worldview?

Could the narrator even be first person?

The overwhelming majority of Christian fiction is narrated from a limited third person view, focalized through whichever character is central to that section of the novel. The focalization normally shifts, so it's one character in one chapter, another character in another.

I could imagine an argument for Christian fiction being narrated from an omnipotent third person, i.e., the God's eye view. After all, wouldn't a view of the world narrated from the position of the Christian God be fiction from a Christian worldview. It would go against the conventions of contemporary realism, and might read a bit strange, but there's a logic to the idea.

On the other hand, Evangelicalism believes faith is fundamentally personal, individual, and so, one could imagine that the first person might be the most natural view from which to narrate. There are cases where Christian fiction is narrated in the first person. Frank Peretti's The Visitation. The wildly popular novel, The Shack. But it seems to be the exception.

I think that's because first person narration raises the problem of the narrator's contingency and positionality. This is problematic for the "Christian worldview" Christian fiction writers are often promoting, in that the certain truth of the world and the way the world works are called into question if they're perceived from a specific position, since another position would mean another, different view.

Is that the reason for the limited third person, though?

I need to think about it.

And whether or not this particularly matters, if it's an important part of what it means for this genre to be "from a Christian worldview." It seems like it might turn out to be a critical part of the staging of the imaginative experience of a Christian worldview, this limited third person view giving us the sense that reality is a certain way, and not contingent, not subject to change.