I was lured once into reading a book which, as the autobiography of a young girl before and after her conversion, was recommended as helpful reading for an evangelical (or maybe Reformed) audience. For one reason or another I set aside my general lack of enthusiasm for both biography and autobiography and ended up acquiring it.
And reading it! As advertised, it was enchantingly lively in tone and remarkably easy to relate to – but I was more particularly struck by the very astonishing providences which the young narrator experienced in her early and teenage life. The general concept of the inter-relationship of grace and providence was particularly salient for me at the time – the intricate and remarkable ways that circumstances uniquely conspire with gospel truth to bring particular individual souls to salvation – and I could only wonder at the astounding experiences recounted in this girl’s providence.
But as I thus trustingly read along and marvelled, it began to dawn on me that the ‘I’ of the narrative could in no way be identical with the author of the book. In fact, it turned out, the whole thing was a work of fiction. There was no such person. Her family circumstances never existed. Her oh so identifiable moments of teenage angst never took place. Those heartrending deaths of close contacts had never happened. No such soul was ever brought from spiritual death to spiritual life. And, apart from anything else, I couldn’t really get over the ludicrousness of inventing a salvation when the actual salvation of any real person is so much more worthy and rewarding of any storyteller’s attention. What appalling sacrilege, I found myself thinking, to make believe on this territory.
This was the first time it had ever mattered to me that the author of a work of fiction has to take control of providence. Obviously there’s lots to say about providence in relation to fiction, and some things can maybe even be said through fiction. So providence (or, Fate) as a theme in works of fiction – that’s always been fine for me. Thomas Hardy’s fate, say, for all that it’s so malignantly different from divine providence, is interesting to consider, thought-provoking, thoughtful. The dreaming up of nonexistent worlds, landscapes, persons and relationships – also fine. Imagination is there to be used, and the more skillfully shared and the more illuminating for the rest of us the better. Even the element of escapism inherent in appreciating an imagined story – fine again. As well find a diversion from the concerns of the here and now in literary as horticultural or musical or sports pursuits if that’s where your tastes lie.
So what caused the revulsion against this book, which by its own fans is evidently regarded as beautiful, inspirational, and even life-changing, couldn’t have particularly been that it was fiction. It must have been its way of trampling around in a place which is maximally inappropriate for letting imagination loose. Not that it simply described a providence which didn’t obtain, but that it described a grace which never was. It’s barely possible to imagine what benefit can come from making up a conversion, when each individual’s conversion is a one-off and custom-designed process (drawn with cords of a man and bands of love). It’s barely possible to imagine what benefit can come from inventing the lifetime of a soul’s sanctification, when each individual’s sanctification is a cross and a crown fitted for themselves personally. To make the attempt with – well, perhaps Pollyanna would be somewhat unfair, but easily Anne of Green Gables, or one of the sprightlier Chalet School Girls – is only adding insult to injury.
Even allowing for the disconcerting circumstance that what I’d thought was a true story failed in the end to be anything more than an extended figment of someone’s imagination, the whole experience has hardened my attitude against Christian fiction. It’s a genre nobody I know in real life has much time for – it seems too much like aspiring to emulate a secular pastime with the built-in flaw of a religious dressing, meaning it can neither compete with quality secular literature to appeal to a secular audience nor cohere with the principles of religion it purports to accommodate to satisfy the doctrinally minded. Lesson learned: if it’s worldliness you’re after, just have it neat.