For three years, I judged Christian novels for Christianity Today’s Novel of the Year Award. One year it was almost unbearable. I found the contenders all but unreadable.
The authors had set their tales within a “Christian bubble” that was safe and nice, and although these authors would nod their heads at the reality of vices such as smoking pot or smart-mouthed teens, there was no real sin, no real suffering, no Dostoevskian “crucible of doubt.” Nor was there any passion or catharsis, probably because the characters (and their dialogue) sounded like they were sketches from a recalled 1990s PBS special.
Flannery O’Connor—the great twentieth-century Christian novelist—understood this well and often wrote about it. In one instance she shows how the Christian novelist has a tendency to stay away from the dirty.
The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality. He will think that the eyes of the Church or of the Bible or of his particular theology have already done the seeing for him, and that his business is to rearrange this essential vision into satisfying patterns, getting himself as little dirty in the process as possible.
Such fiction—the kind that you will likely find on the shelves at your local Christian bookstore—will do little to transform your character.
The Scandal We Need
When literature does not “penetrate concrete reality” it can’t affect us. Books that cannot penetrate us are kin to those unreadable Novel of the Year contenders. What we should be seeking are novels that can read us, that scandalize us, and cause us to trip, fall, and, thus, learn.
By scandalize I mean something positive. I’m using the word scandal in the sense of skandalon, meaning “stumbling block.” In the New Testament, Peter calls Christ the skandalon, the “stumbling block” that causes disbelievers to fall (1 Peter 2:4–8).
Again, relying on O’Connor’s insight, she uses the phrase “stumbling block” to refer to her fiction. She writes, “That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence.” O’Connor’s fiction is scandalous because she makes a belief in Christ a matter of life and death.
Reading stories that are merely ethical systems in disguise will do little to transform our character, like any story that reflects our current ways of thinking about ourselves and the world. Simplistic allegory is often weak and two-dimensional, impossible to inhabit in any real sense. No one is scandalized by an Aesop fable, even a baptized one.
But when writers imitate the scandal of the incarnation in the way they write, their narratives transform readers to be more like Christ. Christians should make it a habit to be regularly scandalized, specifically in what we choose to read—it is through scandalous literature that we will become more like Christ.
What should we be reading?
The majority of Christians in America read many more self-help and Christian living books than literature.
But if we look at the example of the Son of God himself, we don’t see him speaking on how to make friends and influence people or seven methods of effective discipleship. Rather, he made his ministry about telling stories and living as the hero of a true story. Christ is the Word. The Bible is a story. If Christians are not reading stories, they are neglecting one of the charges of the gospel.
Christian Smith writes in Moral Believing Animals that stories “tell us what is real and significant . . . who we are, where we are, what we are doing, and why. . . . As human beings, we are made by our stories.” As Christians, then, what does this mean for our reading lives?
It means we should choose stories that seek to capture the grit and reality of the incarnation and thus demand imitation. There are the great dead heroes of the past who should be at the top of our reading list—Augustine, Dante, Dostoevsky, O’Connor, Walker Percy—but there are also new faithful voices in the present—Boyagoda, Gina Ochsner, Paula Huston, Ron Hansen, Daniel Taylor, Suzanne Wolfe, Gene Luen Yang, and a host of others.
In these authors’ works, evil sometimes has its day. Characters may not be reduced to villains or heroes. Readers who prize the easy read, the book with clear bad guys and good guys and a worldly happy ending, will not find their reflections of human nature comforting.
Scandalous novels imitate the incarnation.
For these writers who imitate the incarnation, we are all are pilgrims on our way, being transformed by grace from beasts into children of God. Incarnational stories imitate the journey of the incarnation in their paradoxical structure.
Just as Christ moved from his position in heaven to be lowered to earth, suffered death, and then rose again to rejoin the Father, so incarnational narratives move from descent to ascent. This structure overturns common assumptions about the trajectory of our lives (or even of history!). Whereas most people want to see their life journey as continually improving or history as forever progressing, the reality rarely accords with this vision.
When I ask freshmen to imagine themselves on graduation day, no one sees anything but happy circumstances and good fortune in the future. However, we are all “inextricably middled,” to borrow a phrase from David Lyle Jeffrey, in our own stories. We cannot see what comes next, only what is behind us and where we are now.
In four years, my students may face suffering. Graduation may be followed by a low point. But the story of the incarnation models for us how descent precedes ascent. The humbling, or kenosis, is a necessary step to exaltation, a concept not often embraced by secular narratives. Reading stories gives us a more holistic vision than we are able to have on our own lives.
We read narratives into real life.
Because the truly great stories imitate Christ, they too will demand a bodied response. Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, writes, “The test of a book lies in its power to map or transform a life. The question we would ultimately ask of any work of art is this: Can you live it?”
When it comes to the greatest story of all, the gospel “is not finally a matter of words but is an embodying deed in the Person who by so faithful a reading ‘becomes’ the Word.” Stories are a means by which we become more able to imitate the Word. They are not an end in themselves. If I live my life bringing forth O’Connor’s presence by embodying her work, it is admirable, but, ultimately, it too will fade. Rather, the end is to embody the incarnation found in O’Connor’s stories, the one that she points the way to, like a Georgia John the Baptist.
Near the end of Dostoevsky’s life, he was profoundly moved when “a host of people, youths, graybeards and ladies” accosted him after a speech and exclaimed, “You’re our prophet. We’ve become better people since we read The Karamazovs.” Incarnational artists, like Dostoevsky, are prophets. They do not point at themselves for imitation, but they point to the one who truly makes us better, who makes into the people we were always meant to be.
If we find these “serious” writers not worth the trouble, perhaps it is because we have a false vision of ourselves as already good enough, or we have a false idea about what it means to follow Christ. Their stories are stumbling blocks for the same reason that the gospel does not appear to everyone to be good news.
Supposedly, as the famous library at Alexandria was burning, when a monk begged the triumphant caliph not to destroy the books, the Muslim ruler responded, “If the works contradict the Quran, they must be burned. And if they support it, they are superfluous.” Such a dichotomy should not be the mantra of Christians.
I am thankful that we do not burn books anymore, but I’ve told students numerous times that I think what we do now is far more shameful. We convince ourselves that we do not have time for War and Peace or The Odyssey. We do less than fiddle while Rome burns; we sit glazed-eyed watching images of unexamined lives stream by on Instagram while the church crumbles. As Ray Bradbury says, “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”
I’m being apocalyptic because I should be, because I am imitating those whom I study. Walker Percy said that we must talk in extremes, in the hope that we will not end up living in such ruins as we prophesy.
I hope he’s right.
I hope that we are not as ignorant as that fabled caliph, that we do not turn away from the stories that may shape us into better humans, better Christians, more faithful sons and daughters. For as Christians we all live in the shadow of the Book of books, and we all desire with great fear, trembling, and hope to be scandalized by the Word made flesh.
 Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, eds. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970), 163.
 Ibid., 114.
 Christian Smith, Moral Believing Animals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 151.
 Mark Edmundson, Why Read? (London: Bloomsbury, 2004), 129.
 David Lyle Jeffrey, People of the Book: Christian Identity and Literary Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 381.
Cover image by Heiu Vu Minh.