Have you ever looked at Christian fiction? Every other book has some girl in a bonnet and some guy wearing an old-fashioned frontier-style hat. Practically all of the rest involve something super-natural- usually armageddon. None of them engage secular difficulties on secularism’s turf. Their themes seem almost childish. Let me give you an example from the most popular Christian series, the Left Behind series.
Think of Buck Williams, played by Kirk Cameron (I told you he’d be back) in the movie. What do we know about Buck? Well, we know he’s an intellectual- he attended Princeton- we know he’s a world reknowned journalist and a senior writer for something bigger than the NYT. And we know he’s not a Christian. This point is critical to Buck’s development. You see, when the rapture happens, Buck starts to doubt his atheism. He begins to put pieces (including a miraculous experience he had in Israel) together and finally decides to accept God. Oh, one more thing we know about the pre-rapture Buck: he’s a virgin.
That’s right: a handsome, successful, famous, non-Christian, 29 year old intellectual is a virgin. We know this because at one point he has a comical discussion about “experience” with a college student he’s sweet on. I couldn’t get over this when I read the first book, probably a decade ago. Even at 12 it seemed preposterous (now it’s almost unfathomable). What were they trying to pull, I wondered?
Now, older and wiser, I’ve figured it out: they were trying to create their own world, totally detached from the secular world, where the ordinary and the sinful were pretty rare and easily dealt with. Even the obvious evil in the story fits this mold: Armageddon isn’t exactly an everyday occurrence. Practically all of modern, conservative Christianity has disappeared into that make-believe world. Thus the Amish books, and the bonnets and the strapping young lads with suspenders and impeccable manners. It’s all a retreat.
How did we get here? Bear with me but I think I have an idea. Back when Christianity still dominated the intellectual landscape, the Christian novel read a lot differently. Sinners showed up more often but they played an almost uniform role: they died. Or they experienced some unthinkable tragedy. You’d see plots that went something like this “girl is seduced away from virtue and soon afterward she’s…run over by a wagon”. Do you see? If you have sex outside of marriage you WILL be run over by a wagon. This was serious stuff. The virtuous were very good and the sinners very bad. This wasn’t, by the way, just a literary thing. Not a whole lot of people were literate and most of those who were only had time for the Bible. But, it was a way of telling morality stories- even orally- that passed into the culture.
As society opened up, something happened. The faithful realized that you didn’t automatically die after pre-marital sex. They noticed that , you know, the virtuous didn’t always triumph. And the virtuous didn’t always seem to be the virtuous- some Christians seemed rotten and some “sinners” seemed like basically decent people. So you get novels like the Scarlett Letter. Chillingsworth is essentially faithful, but clearly evil. Hester and Dimmsdale are tormented, but their torment is more about shame of sin than sin itself. We’re led to feel that, whatever their faults, they’ve basically gotten a raw deal- sin shouldn’t work like that. So there’s a chipping away of the strictures of morality, but most of the ediface is intact.
Dickens, hardly an especially religious writer, illustrates this conflict and change. In David Copperfield, the virtuous and patient Agnes prevails and wins David, while the sinful Little Emily ends up “beautiful and drooping” and essentially exiled. Dickens differs from the prior tradition in that, while the sinful get their desserts, he doesn’t quite call them just. Little Emily is a tragic, not an evil, figure. It seems there was no doubt that sin led to “the fall”, but there was some doubt about whether “the fall” made you irredeemable.
Sometime after Dickens, this type of novel almost totally stopped. People had “tragic flaws” that led to “downfalls” but the arc wasn’t totally explicable in terms of sin. And the man on the street really knew better at this point. He wasn’t going to stand for any of that malarkey. Having realized that sin didn’t work quite as linearly as he’d supposed, he was free from the whole idea. Oh morality and all that was fine, but basically you just wanted to be a good person. Anything more serious and you were getting radical. There’d been an overreach.
Which brings me back to the present (for now). Where before the Christian writer smote the sinners, now he minimizes them. Twenty-nine year old, intellectual, handsome, famous guys might be virgins. In fact, they probably are if God has a plan for them. Somehow it’ll work itself out. Again, this is a form of retreat. But, it’s worth noting- more than worth noting- that there was an alternative to the two traditions- between smiting and false dismissal. This alternative was exemplified in the novels of Evelyn Waugh. A few months ago, somebody over at NRO (and I can’t find the quote) claimed that while the love story worked in Brideshead Revisited, the religious plot hadn’t quite come off. I thought this was incredible and absolutely backwards.
The love story didn’t quite work precisely because the religious plot was so central. The Brideshead crew just couldn’t live well without God. The whole second half of the book is based on that gorgeous Chesteron quote:
“Yes,” he said, “I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”
They’d wandered but they were hooked and knew it. They’d wandered because they were hooked and couldn’t stand it. The novel is full of that sort of idea. Life is glamorous; interesting; occasionally pleasurable. But, it’s not quite full and they’re never quite satisfied. Sin isn’t a demonic monster which immediately consumes every last good sensation, but neither is it a pathetic easily vanquished rodent. Instead, it’s a real temptation which can feed you but never fill you. Am I crazy to think that this is where we Christians ought to be going? Am I crazy to think that this is the way it really is? We should deal with the modern world manfully and acknowledge that sin exists and, while it cuts man off from God’s grace, it can come out shining like the light. But, it is not the light and it will never be enough to keep us out of the darkness. Maybe the wages of sin is death, though a gradual death with many remissions.