stepping out of bounds

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.

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23 thoughts on “stepping out of bounds

  1. I think I know what you mean, though – there are the If-Jilly-Cooper-Wrote-OTT-Devotionally-Catholic-Novels written by an American, which describe people’s conversions etc etc, and while I read them at the time with pleasure one does take in trashy novels (without having to skip any sex scenes!) – they were a bit weird.

    But then there are things like Kristina Lavransdatter and Diary of a Country Priest, or the books of Dostojevski or Tolkien. They are simply novels by Christians who see the world as Christians do. I often wonder about Christianity in Austen (and Dickens, and Trollope); they are more novels of manners, which means that the work of grace in each soul don’t really enter innuit, whereas the more “psychological” later novels have to treat of it.

    The point being, I suppose, that one needs to define “Christian fiction”.

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  2. Yes. So, not referring to novels written by Christians, but the weirdness of novels written for “devotional” purposes (which is simply bizarre) or with some sort of view to evangelising non-Christians (cringeable to boot).

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  3. I take it the first word of your blog post title is carefully chosen? If so, as a former buyer for a small chain of Christian bookshops, I suspect that many people, in the Isle of Lewis for instance, are not aware that a certain Victorian book is not fact. I’ve no idea whether those people have actually read the book, nor do I recall whether I’ve ever read any part of it or not!

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  4. Were you suckered into reading it on a Sunday? I am all agog. Meanwhile, I wonder what the boundaries are for you, then, in “the story of a soul”? Graham Greene’s thrillers often depict a soul-possessor grappling with faith, conscience and sin. GG does not consign any of his characters to hell, but we may hae oor doots. Evelyn Waugh tore a strip off him for at least one of his fictional “holy sinners.”

    And–say! What about C.S. Lewis and “Screwtape”? We realize that what we are reading is not factually the family correspondence of a demonic family (indeed, if it were, it would be better not to read it). However, it does tell the story of a soul.

    But I agree that an out-and-out fake hagiography is wrong if it is written to hoodwink people into thinking that it was All Really Real.

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  5. Ha. Not on a Sunday, which was a great mercy. :-)

    I don’t really know. It probably hinges on different views of conversion and the differences between “natural” and “supernatural” ‘exercises of soul’. So on the one hand you can appreciate the depiction of the soul struggles which are Common To Man in his unregenerate state, but the implication of where I’ve argued myself into in the post is that the kinds of exercise of soul which are only the outcome of the work of the Holy Spirit would be wholly inappropriate to fictionalise.

    CS Lewis is generally recognised to have written some valuable things but that recognition is inevitably tempered by the gulf in theological understanding on various important points. But I can think of John Bunyan’s various allegories too – in The Holy War he represents particularly graphic conversations taking place amongst the Diabolonians. But things that are clearly allegorical (and as you say, only work at all if they are allegorical) are somehow not particularly problematic.

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  6. (Can I just add, this post has been sitting around in my Drafts for weeks and weeks and only got published right now by accident – if it looks like the outcome of my deepest current ponderings, that wouldn’t be accurate!)

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  7. We should make you read a list of novels and say whether you think the author’s gone wrong/too far in writing about ” the kinds of exercise of soul which are only the outcome of the work of the Holy Spirit “.

    Who are Calvinist (or Calvinist-compatible) novelists who are not being devotional or preaching-to-the-pagans? (Because I am embarrassed to admit that I can only think of a famous Scottish anti-Calvinist sort-of novel! And it is more Dickensian than psychological.)

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  8. Well, there’s a question, because other than the Pilgrim’s Progress I’m not sure I can think of any robustly Calvinistic writings that could be regarded as novels. Novelists whose background was calvinistically informed (put it like that) have tended to write, not necessarily for the purpose of reacting against religion but at any rate from a position of rejecting their religious background to some extent or another – RL Stevenson, Thomas Hardy, the Brontes, say. Where RLS was brought up under McCheyne (or his nanny was, or something) and the Brontes’ father was (if i have this right) a good friend of Charles Simeon (famous evangelical Church of England clergyman who had friends among the impeccably orthodox of the contemporary Scottish scene). Yet evangelical religion (in the then-current meaning of the term) is not the driver for their works nor is it even portrayed particularly sympathetically when mentioned at all. Evangelical(-in-that-sense) believers can presumably appreciate these novels not on the basis of any religious appeal but on their non-religious merits.

    Only the outcome of the work of the Holy Spirit… Thinking of say things like Doddridge’s Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul (different era from RLS & co but still) – minute descriptions of what goes on in a soul pre/peri/post-conversion from what I suppose you’d call a psychological perspective, but always clear that, eg, ‘enlightening the mind in the knowledge of Christ’ is qualitatively different from being/becoming familiar with the letter of the truth (Spirit-wrought conviction of sin qualitatively difft from ‘natural’ regret/remorse), etc. Exploring the inner workings of an imagined human heart can be very instructive and enlightening but somehow the inner workings of the regenerate heart need kinder, gentler treatment – description anyway and generalisation ok but fictionalisation (or so it says here!) no. Just trying to imagine a version of Thomas Boston’s Memoirs, say, in novel form – it would be both (a) pretty dull and (b) rather pointless — (a) who wants to read the imaginary toils of an imaginary sensitive soul, and (b) if (as we learn from B’s Memoirs) all a (real, concrete) person’s experience is for their own real, concrete, personal sanctification, you learn nothing from imagining how imaginary sanctificaiton might take place in an imaginary soul in imaginary circumstances.

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    • Yes, I did a quick google before commenting, and all I could find were descriptions of people either, as you say, getting out of Calvinism, or novels about ye olde classical Calvinist predestination (or in which it was a theme), and there again usually not as if they thought it was reality, but it was just a quick look through one or two sets of search results, so there was a good chance I’d just not happened on the right words. Also, I didn’t any mention of any non-English-language writers, so perhaps there are French or German or Dutch writers who just aren’t well-known.

      I suppose I can’t force you to eat a diet of Undset and Bernanos and report on its effects until I’ve gotten round to writing about impressions of pelagian undertones in Ryle’s Practical Religion, whether they are correct and if so, to showing my working :D

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  9. You don’t like biography!! I am astonished. I didn’t know it was possible to not like biographies. Not even the old Scottish Presbyterian biographies? Ministers and Men of the Far North, The Days of the Fathers in Ross-shire, The Memoir of Rev. Neil Cameron, etc.?

    Generally speaking, I think that one can read a history of a given time period and come away with quite a different impression from that obtained by reading the autobiographies of those who lived in that time period.

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