Monday, May 16, 2016

Context in Christian Fiction

Donn Taylor

            The chief objective of commercial fiction must be to entertain. If we writers fail in that, it will make no difference how much “message” or “theme” we put into our fiction because we will have few if any readers. That said, fiction also presents the writer with the opportunity to portray his interpretation, his vision, of how some part of reality actually works. Even the most blatant “escape” fiction deals to some degree with the conflict between good and evil. So each fictional universe necessarily possesses an ethical dimension. Even absurdist fiction—built on the idea that the universe is illogical—asserts the writer’s belief that that “truth” is important.
            So if we want to do more than entertain, to invite our readers to share our vision of the world, we need to think carefully about the breadth and depth of the worldview we present. For that worldview is the context in which our story is told. Our characters struggle within the context of their own “here and now,” dealing with problems appropriate to that age. But can we as Christian writers also portray that age in the context of biblical time?
            I believe we can.
            If we reach into biblical history, we see God continually calling His people out of the popular cultures of their times. This is true with Noah and with Abraham. It continues with His calling the Israelites out of Egypt to be different from the other cultures, to be the carriers of His message to the world. It continues with the ministry of Jesus and the New Covenant, followed by the spread of Christianity among the gentiles.
            The pattern does not stop there. It goes on with the history of Christendom. The world of Christ’s time was characterized by savagery—crucifixions and the slaughters in the Roman arena. Christians were called out of that culture but (as the Israelites had adopted many of the pagan practices of the Canaanites), the early church adopted many of the Roman cruelties. So the history of Christendom consists of God’s calling of the church out of that culture. Christians’ response was gradual, for only in the late seventeenth century did they stop killing each other over theological differences. Only in the nineteenth century did they decide that the ancient practice of slavery was evil, and in the early twentieth that Imperialism was wrong.
            In contrast, the world outside Christendom has remained, and still remains, in about the same state of savagery it possessed in the time of Christ.
            But our present state of civilization is not a destination. We Christians are still being called out of the popular culture of our own age. And we, like the Israelites before us, too often conform to that popular culture rather than to our divine calling.
            My point for fiction writing is this: The more we can portray our characters’ present-day struggles in the context of this overall history, the more we will equip our readers to see their own struggles in those terms. We are not alone in our own age. We all are tiny but active agents in God’s plan to remake humanity more in the image of Christ.
            If we writers teach ourselves to think in these terms, we will add a greater dimension of depth to our fiction—to the benefit of our readers. 

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