Cover Story

TRUTH AND FICTION

"TRUTH AND FICTION" Continued...

Issue: "Summer Books 2004," July 3, 2004

The romance tradition includes Christianized versions of pagan legends (such as Beowulf). It also includes imaginative sagas of Christian kings and heroes (King Arthur). The impulse toward fantasy also manifested itself in symbolic stories (the quest for the Holy Grail) and theological allegories (The Divine Comedy).

Realistic fiction, though-as in novels that emphasize characters and their inner lives in an actual-seeming setting-developed much later. At first, these took the form of mock-romances, which made fun of medieval ideals by contrasting them with actual life (Cervantes's Don Quixote [1605]). Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678) took the medieval genre of the Christian allegory and rendered it with an innovative realism. Then there were the pseudo-histories, renditions of romantic plot devices (such as being stranded on a desert island) in a historical style (Defoe's Robinson Crusoe [1719]).

The first modern novel is probably Samuel Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, published in 1740. This work consisted of a series of letters from a young serving girl trying to make her way in the big city. Before long, her employer tries to seduce her, leading to elaborate abductions and escapes as Pamela defends her chastity against a dastardly villain, who eventually becomes converted. The letter device allows Richardson to develop what would become hallmarks of modern narrative: Instead of the author narrating the tale, the main character, Pamela, tells what happened to her in her own voice. And the rather slender and far-fetched plot becomes secondary to the character delving into her own inner life.

After Pamela, the novel as an artistic form exploded in popularity and variety. The early novelists, by and large, worked from a Christian worldview. Pamela knew that extramarital sex was wrong, and she resisted a predatory man to keep her virtue. Even stories that had little explicit religious content assumed a moral and spiritual order. Right and wrong were objective categories. Human beings were seen as sinful yet spiritual beings in a challenging yet ordered world. The early novels' constant themes of love, marriage, family, responsibility, duty, and purpose were all informed by a biblical view of life.

Jane Austen, the pastor's daughter, wrote unparalleled fiction about the comedies and dramas inherent in her small country parish. Charles Dickens invented unforgettable characters and sparked social reforms. Other novelists took up explicit Christian themes and explored them in their depths. Nathaniel Hawthorne explored the dark recesses of our fallen human nature. Fyodor Dostoevsky plunged into the mysteries of sin and redemption. George MacDonald explored his faith both in realistic novels and in highly symbolic and evocative fantasies.

Even in the supposedly secularist 20th century, Christians continued to make their mark as fiction writers. A number of Catholic writers wrote powerful works that addressed the spiritual emptiness of modernity with a vision of Christianity that was seldom merely the theology of Rome: Graham Greene (The Power and the Glory); Walker Percy (The Thanatos Syndrome); Flannery O'Connor (The Violent Bear It Away). Then there were the enormously popular and influential Christian fantastists J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings) and C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia).

These authors were all published by secular, general-market publishing houses. They gained wide audiences and critical acclaim. They also influenced their cultures and touched the lives of their readers, in some cases bringing them to faith.

Yet, ironically, evangelicals-readers, writers, and publishers-were largely ignoring fiction, until they invented a genre of their own.

Genre fiction

In the United States, many conservative Protestants separated themselves from the increasingly secularist modern culture. Part of this was due to Christians who wanted to be uncontaminated by the godless culture, and part of it was due to the godless culture's hostility to Christian faith.

The Christian publishing industry grew up and its products were sold in Christian bookstores. Most of the books put out were devotional helps, Bible studies, and guides for Christian living. Except for a few historical novels and Bible retellings, there was very little fiction.

Then, in 1978, Frank Peretti's spiritual thriller This Present Darkness was published, a dark tale about a titanic conflict between demons and angels that loomed behind a small town's controversies. Jan Dennis, who was

Mr. Peretti's editor with Crossway, told WORLD that his manuscript had been turned down by 15 publishers before Crossway took a chance and put it into print, in a tiny print run of only 4,000 copies. But the Christian horror novel sold over 2.5 million copies.

Mr. Peretti's novel and its sequels showed evangelical readers the power of fiction (though, arguably, many of them were so inexperienced with fiction that they took the "spiritual warfare" motif as fact, instead). Evangelical publishers now had a market for fiction, which they proceeded to serve with a great variety of products. Today, as much as one-fifth of the sales for Christian publishers comes from fiction: Christian romance novels, Christian horror, Christian science fiction, Christian fantasies, Christian conspiracy novels, Christian political novels, Christian techno-thrillers.

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