Latent Christianity

December 8, 2008

WATCHING PEOPLE’S reactions to the themes in the movie House has been interesting. The film as a whole is deeply influenced by everything from cinematography to acting to direction to score to special effects…the list is endless, and the end product was way beyond my control. But the story on which the movie is based was mine and reviewers’ reaction to the basic theme of that story interests me.

They fit into three broad categories that look something like this:

First, there are the Christian reviewers who act as so-called experts on the value of a film, a quantity they derive by scoring negatives and positives. Like mathematicians using formulas, the more analytic among them give the end product either a thumbs up or a thumbs down. For many of these, House wasn’t Christian enough.

Then there are the hosts of Christians thrilled to see something hit the screen that isn’t blatantly Christian. As long as the theme is fairly plain, the mere absence of an overt Christian message draws cheers from them. In their view, House was just about right.

Finally, there are the non-Christian reviewers. Reading their opinions, you might think House was blatant propaganda designed to shove the church down the audience’s throat. In their view, House was far too Christian, nothing short of an evangelical sermon.

So which is right? It all boils down to expectations, really. What people expect from a movie or a book, profoundly impacts their interaction with it.

Throughout my career I’ve often found myself in the cross-hairs in this regard. There is always significant pressure on me from the minority Christian machine to produce more “Christian Friendly” stories. This amounts to material that fits more nicely in exclusively “Christian” sectors of the market, and runs little or no risk of offending anyone for any reason. Even better, novels that are blatantly Christian.

This is a huge market, a fact of which I am well aware. Millions gobble up books of this ilk. The Christianity is direct, the message spoon fed, and the sales are high. I have no argument against writers who choose this route, but I have chosen another.

In his essay on “Christian Apologetics,” C.S. Lewis made a statement that guides my writing. He reasoned that an argument for Christian principles or truth might hold people’s attention as they are reading it or hearing it, but

“the moment they have gone away from the lecture hall or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted. Every newspaper, film, novel and textbook undermines our work….”

He then went on to say,

“what we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects—with their Christianity latent.”

Lewis makes the point that, for the most part, blatantly Christian books only feed the faithful with quickly forgotten lessons while they are rejected by the rest of the world. Many Christian books are written for commerce, to sustain a self-feeding machine that benefits few. It’s easy, it’s profitable, it’s  seen as honorable by many.

But, I made the choice to follow the advice of Lewis. In his words:

“Our business is to present that which is timeless in the particular language of our own age,” he said. The “bad” writer “does exactly the opposite: he takes the ideas of our own age and tricks them out in the traditional language of Christianity.”

This is why I use contemporary story forms and modern mythic structures to flesh out my characters’ search for the truth. It’s also why my characters don’t stop in the middle of the story to tell the readers they are reading a “Christian” story. In fact, they aren’t. Citing Lewis’ admonition, my publisher, Allen Arnold of Thomas Nelson, has always strongly encouraged me along this path. Nevertheless, the pressure to fit into a status quo is always looming and sometimes feels like a strong head wind.

One reviewer asked of House, “A Christian horror movie? Isn’t that, like, impossible? What do they do, say ten Hail Marys while they’re hacking up each other?”

While this was said tongue in cheek, it points to society’s tendency to compartmentalize, and it seems the world has sequestered Christianity into a small box that resembles little of what my peers and I believe. Following Lewis’ idea, it would be a mistake to call our works Christian, making them “one more little book (or movie) about Christianity” because any book labeled as “Christian” is assumed to essentially be “about Christianity” as was clearly the case with the reviewer above.

House isn’t any more or less Christian than Narnia. Neither was The Matrix. Nor are Black, Red, and White. Nor, for that matter, Adam and Thr3e, Saint and BoneMan’s Daughters. They are all about characters thrown into extraordinary circumstances, searching for significant meaning which comes with the discovery of truth. Does this make them “Christian?” Lewis would probably say no.  Yet all of my novels are infused with hope. Their worldview is saturated in redemptive history.

Oddly enough, the pressure to be more overtly Christian seems to be motivated as much by money as by principle. Pioneers always pay a price, just ask Luther and Tyndale. The established Christian machinery is as much about business models as principles, but that’s another blog altogether.

Meanwhile, you tell me, should I write “one more little book about Christianity?” Or should I do what I’ve always done as recommended by Lewis: Tell stories in “the language of our own age” on other subjects with my “Christianity latent?”

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