A couple of weeks ago, at the request of reader ZJ, I reviewed the first chapter of John C. Wright’s Catholic-inspired scifi anthology novel The Book of Feasts and Seasons. Having left off there, I promised to come back ASAP and review the remainder of the book, a promise which I am now here to fulfill.
The bottom line on The Book of Feasts and Seasons is that it wasn’t very good. That said, I am left with two options regarding how to proceed in reviewing it: either by doing a micro-review or a meta-review. The first would go into small detail about precisely the things I didn’t like in it, while the second would look at the overall reason why this book didn’t work. I’ve opted for the meta-review, as I believe it has more of general interest in it, especially to those who have not read Wright’s novel.
In the end, Wright’s Christian novel fails because it is a Christian novel. It isn’t a very good novel for the same reason that Kirk Cameron’s Christian movies aren’t very good movies. But (let us not seem here to be singling out Christianity too much) it is also for the same reason that the Communist ballet The Red Detachment of Women isn’t a very good ballet. It falls flat – they all do – because art that has being didactic as its primary purpose is inordinately prone to being boring, preachy, predictable, simplistic, stilted, ham-fisted, and dreadful. Almost all didactic art, Christian or otherwise, falls into these artistic offenses. Very rare is the work that avoids them, and Wright’s is not among the elect few.
The issue is a basic, conceptual one. A novelist who starts out by saying merely: “I am going to write a Christian novel” is like a chef who starts out by saying merely: “I am going to make spicy food”. It is the wrong place to start. When working on any problem – be it artistic, scientific, engineering, or even culinary – it is always necessary to start by asking: “Exactly which variable am I solving for?”. In creative endeavors, this is critical, because every other variable must give way to the primary one being solved for; all of the other other aspects of the work will necessarily be minimized in order to maximize that one variable. Thus, while one certainly can start by consciously deciding to make a novel Christian, or make food spicy, that provides no guarantee that you’ll wind up with a good read or a tasty meal.
This is particularly true when the variable being solved for is how to effectively deliver a didactic message. Both ideology and (especially) religion are heady, powerful stuff; like spice in a delicate dish, it is easy to ruin everything by adding too much. The right amount is recognizable and distinct, yet is subtle enough that it blends with all other ingredients. Too much overpowers everything else – it robs all subtlety from the end product, and its overly strong flavor makes the results unpalatable. Someone with a limitless taste for that particular ingredient may not mind, but everyone else will. Most people like a little bite of heat in their food; few will eat hot peppers straight out of a jar.
In other words, there’s a reason why Sam Goldwyn used to say: “If you want to send a message, try Western Union”.
Does this mean that it is futile to try to write a novel with Christian themes? No, but it is important to remember that basically all good Christian novels are not self-consciously Christian; that being didactic is not the variable they primarily exist to solve for. So what should that variable be? To tell a story. As E. M. Forster noted in Aspects of the Novel, “Yes — oh, dear, yes — the novel tells a story. That is the fundamental aspect without which it could not exist”. Forster wished that the essential heart of the novel could be something other than telling a story (he was, after all, a Modernist), but had to acknowledge the inescapable fact that telling a story is what novels fundamentally exist to do.
It is here that we hit something of a paradox. Even if you approach writing a novel as a Christian who wants to spread a Christian message, you need your novel to be a good one. If it isn’t good, then nobody outside of the relatively small number of people who primarily want a didactic message (i.e., those who make up a metaphorical choir that you can preach to) will ever read it. In order to be a good novel, its primary focus – the primary value that it solves for – must be telling a good story, not spreading a message.
And thus the paradox: if you want to write a good Christian novel, you can’t write a “Christian novel”.
I am reminded of the Christian libertarian writer Chris Bechtloff’s statement that, although they are by no means cinematic masterpieces, there is more interesting theology – more to think about regarding the nature of temptation and sin – in the Hellraiser series of horror movies than there in a thousand explicitly Christian movies like Fireproof. Similarly, I have long said that anyone who can look past the violent, foul-mouthed surface of Pulp Fiction will find there a far more powerful exploration of Christian themes than can be found in The Passion of the Christ. For all its popularity in the Christian community, at its core The Passion of the Christ is a story about someone being tortured to death by the Romans, whereas the story told in Pulp Fiction is at its core a complex meditation on wrath, pride, repentance, mercy, and redemption.
It is this insight that leads us to a way out of our paradox. It is true that in order to write a good Christian novel, you can’t write a “Christian novel” – but neither do you have to. All you have to do is to tell the truth: the moral truth, the emotional truth, the philosophical truth, the historical truth, and the cosmological truth. Since Christianity is true, the truth will always lead back to Christ. Once an author understands this, it becomes unnecessary to commit the artistic offense of being overly explicit or heavy-handed in presenting Christian themes in their work. Of this heady, powerful stuff, a little dash will do – just enough to remind the readers that it is Christianity, and not any of the innumerable heresies that it has spawned, that is being pointed to.
If Wright had remembered that, he could have written a good novel that was very Christian. Instead, he wrote a Christian novel that wasn’t very good.
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Many thanks to ZJ for sponsoring this post – I hope my ramblings ended up somewhat resembling what he asked for. My next post will be a follow-up to Psycho Dish’s sponsored post, for which he has sent me a second donation, but so as to not be too repetitive here, I will probably give it to him to publish in his own web space. I will, however, be sure to link to it from here when it goes live for those of you who may wish to read it.