Monday, August 17, 2009

Christian Fiction and... Pornography?

While on vacation in the hills of Nebraska, I happened across a really awesome used bookstore. While there, I procured three books:

1) A sudoku puzzle book. (I'm getting pretty good at it and recommend it to all as good mental exercise).

2) More Information Than You Require by John Hodgman (the PC guy from the Apple commercials). A very funny book full of non-factual facts. Through this book, I learned that "'The Teddy Bear' was named after Teddy Roosevelt because of his love of bear meat and the fact that he was covered in fur." Very useful stuff. This book will come in handy.

3) Mystery and Manners by Flannery O'Connor. I consider this the more important find because it is a collection of essays written by her about writing. Since I find her fiction very difficult to follow (everybody always dies violently in her books!), I thought this book would shed some light on her very (to me) hard to follow literary style.

Curious mostly about how her faith interacted with her storytelling I skipped to the chapter entitled "The Church and the Fiction Writer." In it, I found the following passage very insightful; especially when thinking about a great deal of modern "christian fiction." When reading this, especially, I thought of the Left Behind books (which I read while a teen) and the fact that in every single one of the LB books, somebody always finds Jesus and gets born again.

"If the average Catholic reader could be tracked down through the swamps of letters-to-the-editor and other places where he momentarily reveals himself, he would be found to be something of a Manichean. By separating nature and grace as much as possible, he has reduced his conception of the supernatural to pious cliche and has become able to recognize nature in literature in only two forms, the sentimental and the obscene. He would seem to prefer the former, while being more of an authority on the latter, but the similarity between the two generally escapes him. He forgets that sentimentality is an excess, a distortion of sentiment, usually in the direction of an overemphasis on innocence; and that innocence, whenever it is overemphasized in the ordinary human condition, tends by some natural law to become its opposite.

"We lost our innocence in the fall of our first parents, and our return to it is through the redemption which was brought about by Christ’s death and by our slow participation in it. Sentimentality is a skipping of this process in its concrete reality and an early arrival at a mock state of innocence, which strongly suggests its opposite. Pornography, on the other hand, is essentially sentimental, for it leaves out the connection of sex with its hard purposes, disconnects it from its meaning in life and makes it simply an experience for its own sake."
Now, I'm a good Protestant, and I am quietly outraged by her statement that our redemption was brought about "by Christ's death and by our slow participation in it." But rather than practice quiet outrage, let's look at the meat of what she is saying. So the question I pose is, "Is Flannery O'Connor right that fiction ought not to be sentimental?" Please; no FV jokes; as tempting as it must be.


  1. Fiction that comes from a Christian (and especially violent or otherwise unsettling fiction) is often critiqued through the lens of what ought to be rather than the lens of what is.

    So to answer your question, absolutely. It is, put in the parlance of our own circles, over-realized eschatology.

  2. Yeah. I learned this Creative Writing 101:

    "Sentimentality is indulgence in emotion of its own sake, or expression of more emotion than an occasion warrants.... Sentimental literature is 'tear-jerking' literature. It aims primarily at stimulating the emotions directly rather than at communicating experience truly and freshly; it depends on trite and well-tried formulas for exciting emotion; it revels in old oaken buckets, rocking chairs, mother love, and the pitter-patter of little feet; it oversimplifies; it is unfaithful to the full complexity of human experience."

    Sound and Sense, Laurence Perrine

    To piggyback on Adam, it is indeed tantamount to over-realized eschatology, and it finds its impetus in Western Christianity's obsession and adoption of Romanticism (traced in the church back to Schleiermacher, if not Edwards [not to be too controversial here]).


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