When we moved from the Southwest US to the Midwest, I experienced some culture shock in the form of food. Craving Mexican food, we tried restaurant after restaurant. Nothing met our expectations; most of it seemed like ketchup with a little chili powder mixed in. Honestly, what self-respecting Mexican place offers a menu item called a “wet burrito”? Yet there it was in Michigan, all over the place. The idea that Taco Bell was true Mexican food…well, that just burned me like Mom’s huevos rancheros.
And the shock continued when entering the grocery store. Chili powder did have some ground-up chilies for color, but also a list of other spices tossed in, only diluting the lovely, smoky taste of pure chili powder. A search for corn tortillas showed me the disappointing nature of grocers in the Midwest: those crispy taco shells are the only things closely resembling corn tortillas, but there are no soft corn tortillas in many Midwestern grocery stores.
What does this have to do with fiction?
This has everything to do with the taste that one develops. Having grown up in the Southwest, eating typical New Mexican dishes, I developed a discriminating taste. Something less than that wonderful, pure red-chili flavor was disappointing, and not really what I wanted to settle for.
One can “develop taste” similarly with many other things: housing, fashion, music, or literature. If you have lived on a diet of junk food all along, you won’t know or appreciate gourmet food. When you partake of a steady diet of excellent literature, you are able to identify the characteristics of quality. And you will dislike literature of a lesser quality.
Which brings us to Christian fiction.
Most Christian fiction falls into two categories: Christian romance and Christian mystery/spiritual battles. Much of Christian romance is poorly written and follows a fairly predictable formula. They are not much better than Harlequin Romance books: they follow an impracticable romantic recipe that rarely changes.
When I was in junior high, a friend’s mom read many Harlequin Romances every week. Intrigued, I borrowed a few from her. It didn’t take very many books for me to find out that they were trash: very low quality writing, predictable formula, boring. I didn’t recognize it then, but the titillation of a Harlequin Romance causes the reader to fantasize, wish for a different or more exciting life, and eventually to become dissatisfied with her own life. In some cases, the titillation—the description of the love affair itself—is akin to soft porn. It becomes addicting.
I concluded, early in my young life, that the Harlequin novel was of poor substance, because I had been fed a steady diet of quality literature from my mother’s lap. She supplied us with much classical literature, curled up with us to read poetry, and took us to the theater (and opera) as much as she could. Thus from a young age I could distinguish between “trashy” novels and classical literature—just as I can between Taco Bell and true New Mexican food, or between McDonald’s and a good filet mignon.
Like the Harlequin Romance, Christian romance novels lure their readers into a dreamy, unrealistic view of love—albeit a cleaner one. The typical pattern of a romance novel only varies slightly: boy meets girl (or vice versa), boy loses girl, boy goes through a life-quest to find meaning. Boy regains girl. Add the Christian label, and you find some sort of loss-of-faith/faith-quest/coming-to-faith pattern mixed in.
Often, too, the characters are not at all realistically portrayed. Their dialogue is stilted and stiff, not at all the way you and I would normally speak (nor, I suspect, the way pioneers spoke to one another…). Men are strapping and strong, handsome and virile, perfect–without flaw (except the one bad guy…who’s really bad…and poorly portrayed). The women are flawed, weak, indecisive, abused, or neglected in the past.
They need rescuing. Yes, in fact, we all do (that is a great spiritual truth)! However, the unrealistic juxtaposition of these two character types is puzzling. Since the readers are women, are the main female characters portrayed this way so that the reader can project herself into that character? Does that enable the reader to fantasize herself in that role? This is just my guess.
However, contrast that aspect with great classical literature. Romance for romance (and I will argue that these are not “simple” romances, but let’s just say, for argument’s sake), Jane Austen’s novels portray weakness and flaws in every character, realistically. Women need rescuing at times, but at others, they are the ones whose brains are the only ones working for a time. Men are strong yet flawed, egotistical yet self-conscious. Austen’s stories are rich, beautifully written, timeless. I have yet to find those qualities in a Christian Romance.
Rarely do those novels ever resemble reality. If the effect of a Harlequin Romance is to draw the reader into soft porn, the Christian romance is a low-key version of the same. The result: increased dissatisfaction with one’s current life while daydreaming and fantasizing about the perfect romantic partner in some exotic, or pastoral, setting. (Just add a pastor.)
For some reason, many Christian romance novels feature pioneers or Amish women. Visiting a local library, we engaged in a totally unscientific survey: we pulled a cross-section of Christian novels off the shelf. We looked through 23 books and were astounded to find a whopping 8 bonneted beauties on the cover. Why? Perhaps because that time or place was supposed to be more simple, more romantic? I am still puzzling over that one. (If you have an idea, please chime in.)
If you have read my other blog about quality literature and read some of the suggested materials on discerning good reading material, you know that “good literature” can be Christian or secular. So can bad.
The quality of excellent literature constitutes how well the story is told—how well the picture is painted in the mind of the reader. Is the moral dilemma—the tension between good and evil—presented well? Does the book reward re-reading? Do the characters come to life? Is the vocabulary, and the writer’s voice, rich? Will the story stand the test of time, and will it make sense, will it ring true, four decades or a century from now? If you can answer yes to these questions, you may have a piece of quality literature in front of you.
Why do many Christian authors stop short of excellent literature? Your guess is as good as mine. Why do secular authors? Probably we’ll find the answer is the same for both. Danielle Steele writes countless secular romance novels, and she has done so for twenty or thirty years. They sell well. But like Harlequin Romances, Steele’s novels are not well-written. They are formulaic, predictable, simplistic, and they oftentimes don’t even bother with good grammar. (Yes, I read some. I picked them up to see what all the buzz was about. Frankly, I was more bothered that so many readers spend money on such poor writing, than that she writes them. She makes plenty of money, so her strategy works!)
Instead of settling for (or limiting themselves to) the majority of fiction labeled as Christian literature, parents should teach their children how to discern what is good about all literature. They should teach their children how to tell the difference, develop their palate for what is excellent.
Certainly some literature is to be avoided due to its content, its language, or its unnecessarily graphic depictions. Be willing to explain the criteria to your child and why certain books do not meet those criteria.
Here’s the challenge for Christian parents: explore your standards from a biblical worldview: watch the depiction of good and evil. Is it a battle? Does the moral tension reflect reality? Is good truly good, and is sin truly distasteful? Whether Christian or secular, does it gloss over the reality of evil and its consequences? Does moral tension drive the plot, or does the romantic, unrealistic quest for true love drive the story? Is immorality sugar-coated, underplayed, and simplistic, or is it real?
If up to this point you have limited yourself to Christian novels simply because you don’t have to do the work of discerning what’s good literature, step up to the challenge. Read the classics. Try some gourmet food instead of McDonald’s.
Next installment: My picks for excellent literature (you may be surprised!)