Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Towards a Conservative Christian Writer's Manifesto

It's 2017, and one of my plans for the new year is to sit down four nights a week to bang out words on The Great War, Volume Two. I expect to begin posting installments some time this month.

As I've been researching and outlining, I've also been giving a certain amount of thought to the broader question of what it means to be a writer who is a conservative Christian, and why it is that we conservative Christians seem to be pretty thin on the ground in the arts. The following is a brief attempt to sketch out that thinking into a manifesto of sorts on how and why Christians should approach art, necessarily in the context of writing since that is the only area I can claim to have knowledge of.

The foremost purpose of fiction is to tell the truth. Not, obviously, in the sense of only describing things that have actually happened, since fiction, even when describing real events, involves making up details, but rather in the sense of describing people, experiences, choices, and consequences in a manner which reflects the true nature of the human condition.

Perhaps this sounds rather sober and heavy duty. Can't fiction just be fun? Can't it show us fantastic worlds far from where we live now? Of course it can. The realism which I'm encouraging here is not necessary a pedestrian realism (though I think that the small scale dramas of everyday life deserve more attention than they get) but rather the realism of showing people, whether in a Cleveland suburb or in a galaxy far, far away, reacting to experiences and making choices in a way which seems real. This basic realism which allows us to recognize and identify with the characters is part of what allows the story to seem enjoyable to us. If we cannot recognize the characters to some basic degree as seeming like real people, we don't get to participate in the story and enjoy their unfamiliar settings or adventures.

Many Christian writers seem to suffer from a temptation to focus heavily on Conveying The Big Truths. This often comes out in the form either of showing a very neat sort of conversion story, in which exposure to Christians and their arguments leads to conversion which in turn leads inevitably to happiness, or in massive (sometimes literally apocalyptic) clashes between good and evil in which at last good wins out completely, resulting in the birth of a better world.

Do these sort of stories, however, really reflect truth? Perhaps in some sort of very basic, words-on-the-page sense. That five-page theological argument that the earnest young heroine has with her bad-boy love interest, resulting in his total conversion, may accurately describe in written phrases the theological concepts in question. But how true to life is it that one or two theological arguments result in a conversion? How true to life is it that a conversion, however attained, results in someone's life and relationships immediately coming together into complete happiness? How often does a conflict, however bad the enemy, result in a new era of peace and blessedness?

Arguments often do not lead to conversion. Changes in life are often difficult and come with reverses as much as obvious improvements. Titanic conflicts leave many lingering wounds and successor conflicts, both internal and external.

If as Christians we are committed to the truth, including the truth about lived human experience, our fiction should reflect these less neat realities. If we develop and resolve the stories we write with a sort of pat wishfulness, we create a distance between our writing and any reader who does not share our ideas of wish fulfillment. Readers who don't fully share the author's view will think, "Oh, that's a Christian story. It doesn't reflect my experience," while even readers who do share the author's ideas will simply have their illusions and desires reinforced rather than having to face the full reality of the world.

Not only does wish fulfillment do poor service to our Christian duty to truth, but in our own beliefs we actually have a much more compelling source for potential dramatic material. If we take Christian ideas of virtue and vice seriously, then everyday actions, far from being uninteresting or trivial, can have eternal consequences. The way we treat each other, the small acts of selfishness or generosity, the chance encounters with strangers and the casual kindness (or cruelty) with which we treat those we see everyday -- all of these gradually form us into someone with a habit to the good, or a habit to the bad. This is one of the things that I've come to find very compelling about Tolstoy's writing in War & Peace. While the books is packed with huge, world-shaping events (and occasional whole chapters of historical philosophy which I wish had just been cut) the characters' development arcs are shaped not by these big historical events but by seemingly trivial actions: the way in which old Prince Bolkonsky can turn something as seemingly innocent as his woodworking hobby into a means of psychological warfare against his daughter; the way in which Prince Andre's aloofness and unwillingness to forgive even the smallest transgressions, such as the 'silliness' of his socialite wife, gradually builds into a cancer on his relationships with all his loved ones; the way that Pierre's kindness and lack of decision interact to define all the events, big and small, in his life.

A Christian understanding of sin and virtue naturally lends itself to this kind of moral realism in fiction, and this same moral realism, in which every decision a character makes forms that character for good or ill, creating their character development throughout the story, makes for interesting drama because drama is based on change.

This is what I believe Christian fiction writers should commit themselves to: to realistically portraying the decisions and experiences that people have, and to showing the way in which all of these seemingly small choices shape character in eventually big ways. This is the kind of writing which can quietly convey a Christian understanding of how the world works, and can do so in a way that is interesting to readers whether or not they share the author's beliefs, because stories about character choices and change, realistically portrayed, are inherently interesting to us as humans.

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