Christian Community in Fiction

Nathan Hobby, an Anabaptist Christian and fiction writer in Western Australia, posted some worthwhile reflections earlier this summer concerning what it means to write novels for the kingdom of God. In this essay, Nathan unpacks N.T. Wright’s directive to write “a novel which grips people with the structure of Christian thought, and with Christian motivation set deep into the heart and structure of the narrative, so that people would read that and resonate with it and realize that that story can be my story.”

Nathan observes that a lot of popular fiction with the “Christian” label is unfortunately cheesy and simplistic. Brian McLaren’s books, such as A New Kind of Christian, use a fictional narrative to put across some sophisticated ideas in an emotionally accessible way, but are not well-crafted as novels. The same might be said of The Shack, an unlikely bestseller about the Trinity, which I admit I enjoyed despite its clunky plot.

In the modern naturalistic novel, it’s a challenge to dramatize complicated abstractions without turning one’s characters into speech-makers. The rules of the genre also make it difficult to represent the supernatural in anything but a subjective and fuzzy way. The author who throws in a miracle seems to be cheating, unless he leaves open the option of material causes. The take-away lesson of the book may then become more about the virtue of having faith than about the content of that faith. (Did you clap your hands to save Tinkerbell or not?)

Nathan’s essay discusses his own struggles to solve these problems, leading him to the conclusion that too much conscious purpose on the writer’s part can thwart the emergence of well-rounded characters. He’s inspired by N.T. Wright’s message that salvation is not merely personal access to heaven but a project of improving this world here and now. Thus, the novelist can spread the kingdom by depicting what a community based on gospel values would look like:

The three aspects of this that [Wright] discusses are justice, beauty and evangelism. He talks about
justice in terms of the setting right of the world as a sign and symbol of what’s to come. He talks
about beauty in terms of us creating things that reflect simultaneously the beauty of the original
creation, the scars of a fallen world and the hope of the new creation. Evangelism, then, is the
invitation for others to join in the kingdom life, and it needs to reflect the kingdom focus and
hope for renewal of the Earth.

A community-centered literary vision presents its own challenges, Nathan notes, because the novel is a product of Enlightenment individualism. It tracks particular characters rather than groups. “The focus on the individual and the individual’s
consciousness pushes the novel toward individualism and mere spirituality.”

Since my own novel is about a fashion photographer’s faith journey, I was especially interested in Nathan’s suggestion that a novel can reorient our standards of beauty in a more Christian direction:

…[B]eauty has a new shape for a community living in
the kingdom. So, how might beauty in fiction be transformed by the practices of the Christian

There is an obvious and trite answer – for a start, the upside down values of the kingdom
challenge the world’s idea of beauty attached to slim, young models. We might also strain
ourselves and insist that prose is more ‘beautiful’ when it describes a world of God’s presence,
rather than one of his non-existence.

Perhaps in the diversity of the body – the breaking down of racial barriers in the church as a
proclamation of Christ’s victory over the powers – we might also be encouraged to find beauty
outside our cultural comfort zone.

I would like to think that Nathan’s right that prose is more beautiful when it describes a God-infused world. But I’m not so sure. What is beauty, anyhow? Literary tastes vary as much as theological ones, and maybe for similar reasons. Because I’m already a believer, a gorgeous style wedded to a nihilistic vision will seem false to me, perhaps more of a turn-off than if the bleak content were matched by austere prose. On the other hand, that same book might satisfy someone who’s looking for transcendence in art because he doesn’t find it in religion.

I do love Nathan’s notion that a Christian book could bring our aesthetic and moral judgments more into harmony, so that goodness and reconciliation seem more attractive than conventional beauty standards based on inequality and extravagance. My fabulous protagonist, however, hopes there is a place for both, because Vogue is paying his rent.