Like the proverbial quiet before the storm, we pause this week in our Best Christian Book of All Time Tournament (BCBATT). Nominations closed over the weekend, and the brackets won’t be announced until next week. This seemed an appropriate time to ponder the question:
What is a Christian book, anyway?
When I called for people to nominate their picks for the “best Christian book,” I expected there to be some differences of opinion about what constituted a “Christian book,” as well as questions about how to choose which book is “better” than another. The nominations reveal some significant differences in assumptions, and even great diversity within individual lists.Some people picked great works of theology, others of devotion, others stories that capture the essence of the Gospel. Some picked long, complex books that attempt to capture the totality of life and truth, while others suggested short, simple books, focused on a single theme.
What a Christian Book Is Not
One person suggested to me that we aim for the best book — period — and that would be the best Christian book as well. Perhaps, but I’m uncomfortable with the idea of claiming all good books as fundamentally Christian. (For the record, I don’t think that is what he was suggesting.) I support the idea that all truth is God’s truth, and some of the most influential books and other writing in my life are not generally considered “Christian.” For example, my awe for God’s Creation was tremendously expanded by Brian Greene’s Fabric of the Cosmos, which is an introduction to contemporary physics written for laypeople, and Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union gave me insight into the various roles that religion plays in people’s lives, especially people who are looking for a savior. Should books like these be considered when talking about the “best Christian book”? I don’t think so, for a few reasons.
We should respect the beliefs and world views of the authors rather than “hijacking” them as one of our own.
If an author would reject our characterization of her book as “Christian,” then we shouldn’t impose our label on her work, even if the book seems to reflect deeply Christian ideas. We can still regard the book as good, just not “Christian.” We must not fall into the trap of thinking that only explicitly Christian work has value. When I became a Christian as an English major at the University of Louisville, I went through a spell in which I wanted to read only novels and poems written from clearly Christian perspectives. I suspect others have similar experiences with music, art, business writing, etc., and it might even be necessary for young believers to go through a cleansing process. Still, I eventually came to realize that good novels and poems have something to teach me, even when I don’t agree with them in their entirety.
A book can contain truth without being Christian.
As a consequence of the Fall, knowledge has been splintered, with knowledge of God separated from the rest of our knowledge. Put another way, we’ve eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but not the tree of life. It’s quite possible to be a leading expert in a specific field while erring greatly in ultimate matters. We see examples of this immediately after the Fall, in fact. The descendents of Cain are named as the “fathers” of several areas of human knowledge in Genesis 4:20-22 — Jabal of animal husbandry, Jubal of music, Tubal-cain of metalworking. Yet the father of these three, Lamech, is a man of violence, bragging about killing “a young man for striking me” (Gen. 4:23), and the sinfulness of these generations eventually leads God to destroy them with the Flood.
One could draw the conclusion that human culture is irredeemable and that, to be righteous, one should separate oneself from worldly knowledge. Excerpt, of course, that Noah uses advanced carpentry and architectural skills to build the Ark, then demonstrates himself to be a capable viticulturist and winemaker (perhaps too capable). The lesson for us, I believe, is that God’s grace and our creation in his image enables us to understand the world and manipulate it, while our sinfulness prevents us from understanding fully.
We should allow room for God’s process of redemption and recognize the need for redemption.
The slogan “All truth is God’s truth” is valuable for emphasizing God’s role in creating and revealing knowledge, but it can be misapplied. There have been times when ostensibly Christian faculty have excluded God from their research, teaching, and service — even privately — by rationalizing that pursuing their discipline as diligently as possible fulfills their obligations to God. If all truth is God’s truth, and physics is true, then being the best physicist (regardless of what that might mean) is the same as being the best Christian. In his important book Faith and Knowledge, Douglas Sloan documents the rapid collapse of the Faculty Christian Fellowship, a faculty ministry sponsored by the National Council of Churches, in large part because its members lost the distinctiveness that set them apart from their nonChristian colleagues. At its height in 1964, FCF numbered more than 37,000 members; in contrast, ESN has less than 5,000 members today. By the mid-1970s, FCF had disbanded.
Instead of being too quick to graft a book or writer into the Kingdom for expressing ideas consistent with Christianity, we should allow space for partial truth to be expressed without rushing to endorse it as total truth. For one thing, the writer could be a journey toward Christ, and we, as Christians, would be doing him a disservice by short-circuiting his journey. I compare this to the spiritual awakening of a well-known celebrity or public figure. The individual might be a gifted artist, businessperson, politician, etc., but all too often, our rush to anoint the person as a “Christian spokesperson” actually stunts his spiritual growth. I have a feeling that many of these spokespeople experience their closest moments with God after they have left the public stage.
Further, when books are being considered, the author might be a practicing Christian, but not understand or create her writing or vocation from a Christian perspective. I think a person can be part of God’s people while producing work that doesn’t reflect God’s glory, like a salesman who’s in church every Sunday but lies to his customers. (The old justification/sanctification question.)
So, What Is a Christian Book?
Here’s my working definition:
A Christian book is written with the intention (explicit or implicit) of expressing Christian truth (that is, truth drawn from God’s revelation through Scripture, Christ, and the Spirit) and in such a way that a reader can participate in this truth.
This is a very rough definition. Note that I’m not addressing quality at any point of the definition. Some additional explanations:
- Intent: Evangelicals (like myself) probably overemphasize authorial intent. This seemed important, however, in order to distinguish between, say, two novels written by Christians, one written purely as an artistic or commercial exercise and the other written to convey something Christian.
- Christian truth: This is tricky to define, but I think it’s important to distinguish between general and special revelation in the definition of a “Christian book.” Even if you think Plato got his philosophy as close to right as humanly possible, The Republic still shouldn’t be considered “Christian.”
- The reader: This is the section I’m least satisfied with. The Christian thought intended and expressed by the author ought to be accessible to the reader. Could there be a book, written by a Christian for Christian purposes, that is indistinguishable from a book on the same subject written by someone from another belief system? In theory, I’m tempted to say there could be – say an atlas or a math textbook (cartographers and mathematicians, please feel free to correct me in the comments).
One challenge to this final section, as I’ve written it, is The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Yes, it seems to be clearly Christian, but (I think) only if you already know the story of Jesus. A friend of mine, born in the US to nonChristian Indian parents, grew up with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as one of his favorite books, and didn’t learn it was a Christian allegory until he was in high school. I’m not sure there’s any point in the novel in which Lewis explicitly connects Aslan to Jesus, though if I’m forgetting something, let me know.
I like my definition, but I’d appreciate your thoughts and feedback. I’ve not taken the time to research whether others have attempted such a definition, and it would be very interesting to hear about other attempts.
What do you think of my definition? Do you have any suggestions for changing or adjusting it? Do you have your own definition?
About the author:
The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.
James Paternoster says
Thanks for this. I haven’t had time to give your working definition much thought yet, but on first reading it seems pretty good.
My first reaction is that I don’t think you should find the reader part of it as problematic as you do. It concerns you that some books don’t get across to some people a Christian message, but isn’t that the nature of books generally, that they don’t communicate everything, and sometimes even the most important thing, to every reader? Every writer depends on the reader to bring some knowledge to the reading, and as that knowledge varies, so does the ability to read with understanding. If you can’t see the Christianity in TLTWATW, you likely will not understand who it is back in our world the children are to get to know (at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when Aslan explains why they won’t be coming back to Narnia). But to really understand the books, you do need to discover that, and once you do, much more becomes clear.
Bo Cheng says
I think the “intention” portion is a tricky one. Two of my favorite “Christian” books don’t seem to fit this relatively narrow definition. One is LOTR, the other Les Miserables. Neither were written with explicit intention to express Christian ideas. In fact, Victor Hugo was not a Christian at all by all accounts. Yet, both expresses such profound Christian truth that I can not define them other than “Christian” novels. What’s you take?
Christopher Hurshman says
I apologize for being a little late to the game. I agree with James’s comment. “Accessible to the reader” needn’t mean “accessible to every reader.” Otherwise, it’s an impossible standard.
On a separate point, I wonder whether using “intention to express Christian truth” as a standard creates an implicit bias toward genres like nonfiction and allegory, where we can read an author’s intentions more clearly. It’s easier to attribute such an intention to Dorothy Sayers’s essays than it is to her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries (though I love both).
Are Dostoevsky’s great novels intended to express Christian truth? It’s hard to say. In places, they certainly express that truth, but it is often contested and challenged, and Christian truth doesn’t always receive the final word. What about novels by Victor Hugo (whom Bo Cheng mentioned), Charles Dickens (think Sydney Carton wandering the streets of Paris reciting “I am the resurrection and the life”), or George Eliot (who rejected her devout Christian upbringing but nevertheless featured it prominently and often sympathetically in her work)?
Or take something like the Harry Potter series. I wouldn’t classify it as great, but it poses some interesting challenges for your definition. The final books especially feature what many would consider Christian themes: the importance of sacrifice, the destructive effects of sin on the self, the eventual triumph of self-giving love over brute power and conquest. J. K. Rowling has said that these books reflect and engage her own faith. Is that enough to make these works Christian?
The more I think about the question, the more I find myself wondering whether there is such a thing as a Christian work of fiction. There are Christian authors, and there are Christian readers, but are there Christian novels? Is it a bit like searching for a Christian joke? Are we misunderstanding what the thing is by asking the question at all?
Micheal Hickerson says
Great questions, Christopher. You make some good points (which is why I’m glad I billed the post as a working definition). It also occurs to me that the question of intention raises the issue of the author’s self-understanding and understanding of the writing vocation. Writers, like other professionals, can be believing/practicing Christians for a long time without seeing their writing as an expression of their faith. Even when they do, their understanding of what that means can be severely limited. (I think of Tolstoy renouncing his pre-conversion novels, or – a lesser example – Anne Rice deciding to write ONLY about Jesus, then later rejecting any connection to Christianity at all and returning to her horror novels.)
Part of the issue, too, is that the terms “Christian fiction” or “Christian poetry” are, in current culture, associated with subgenres that usually aren’t up to the quality of mainstream fiction and poetry. “Christian fiction” calls to mind Left Behind and Amish romance novels, not The Power and the Glory or Silence. So, when a novel or poem is actually good, we hesitate to give it the label.
Christopher Hurshman says
… Which isn’t to say that I won’t vote in the tournament. I love brackets! 🙂 I just don’t know that I will be able to vote according to any coherent standard of what makes a book Christian.