Category Archives: Fiction
C. S. Lewis to an inquirer, as published in The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, 2:644:
I myself always index a good book when I read it for the first time noting (a) Linguistic phenomena. (b) Good & bad passages. (c) Customs: meal times, social classes, what they read etc. (d) Moral ideas. All this reading, though dedicated ad Dei gloriam [to the glory of God] in the long run must not be infected by any immediate theological, ethical, or philosophic reference. Your first job is simply the reception of all this work with your imagination & emotions. Each book is to be read for the purpose the author meant it to be read for: the story as a story, the joke as a joke.
This is a nice concise summary of principles more fully unpacked in Lewis’ book An Experiment in Criticism.
C. S. Lewis, the Christian apologist and novelist, was born this day in 1898. Among modern Christian thinkers and writers he remains one of the most important voices, and you can learn much about him in the biographical address by John Piper (here).
Lewis spoke of the physical limitations that pushed him towards fictional adventure and novel writing in his autobiography, Surprised By Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (1955), page 12:
What drove me to write was the extreme manual clumsiness from which I have always suffered. I attribute it to a physical defect which my brother I both inherited from our father; we have only one joint in the thumb. The upper joint (that furthest from the nail) is visible, but it is a mere sham; we cannot bend it. But whatever the cause, nature laid on me from birth an utter incapacity to make anything. With pencil and pen I was handy enough, and I can still tie as good a bow as ever lay on a man’s collar; but with a tool or a bat or a gun, a sleeve link or corkscrew, I have always been unteachable. It was this that forced me to write. I longed to make things, ships, houses, engines. Many sheets of cardboard and pairs of scissors I spoiled, only to turn from my hopeless failures in tears. As a last resource, I was driven to write stories instead; little dreaming to what a world of happiness I was being admitted. You can do more with a castle in a story than with the best cardboard castle that ever stood on a nursery table.
A good number of Christians hold an unfavorable bias against fiction literature, assuming that since the events in a novel are not “real” they cannot be worth our attention, certainly not in light of all the great non-fiction books we can read. And if I was looking for a dogfight with a certain publisher in the comments of this post (which happens whenever I take issue with any of their books — something I hope to spare myself from today), I could point you to a recent book by a prominent evangelical writer that propagates this same conclusion.
The idea that non-fiction is true and fiction is un-true is a misnomer — an ancient misnomer. Greek philosopher Aristotle faced it 350 years before Christ. At one point in his brilliant book Poetics, Aristotle contrasts fictional poetry with historical writings. He writes:
It is not the poet’s function to relate actual events, but the kinds of things that might occur and are possible in terms of probability or necessity. The difference between the historian and the poet is not that between using verse or prose. … No, the difference is this: that the one relates actual events, the other the kinds of things that might occur. Consequently, poetry is more philosophical and more elevated than history, since poetry relates more of the universal, while history relates particulars. ‘Universal’ means the kinds of things which it suits a certain kind of person to say or do, in terms of probability or necessity: poetry aims for this. (59, 61)
Note two important points in this quote.
First, Aristotle was aware that the best fiction is guided by probability and necessity. An author is free to create spaceships and mythical worlds with floating mountains. But authors are not free to re-invent behavioral patterns. Characters must still act within boundaries of what is probable and necessary according to their own nature and the situations they are faced with. And this is one reason why literature, the best of it, is not un-true. In fact, literature with characters who fail to operate according to what is probable/necessary in a given situation are unbelievable to an audience of readers. In this sense even sci-fi writers must write stories that are “believable.”
One example comes to mind. A friend was reading atheist Ayn Rand’s novel Fountainhead (1943). He got to about 50 pages to the end, closed the book, and threw it across the room in frustration. Later he explained to me that as he read the book he watched Rand do things to her characters that were simply not guided by probability and necessity; the characters were acting contrary to the natures she had developed for them.
Second, Aristotle was aware that the best fictional authors spell out our common human experience in ways that prove elusive to other forms of non-fiction writing like history or biography. Fictional literature may prove at times to be more true than non-fiction! Why? Novels are free to move beyond the particulars of history to the universals of human experience, to abstract and philosophical concepts as love, hate, goodness, and evil. With such liberty, the author may probe the human condition more profoundly. Tapping into the soul of human experience, the writer spins a web of believability that is potentially more convincing than the historical account. As the plot thickens, the reader identifies with the probable experience of the fictional characters. The invented story serves to usher the reader into the most important realms of reality.
There’s much more to say and I attempt to cover this in my forthcoming book. The idea that non-fiction is true and fiction is un-true is a misnomer, an ancient misnomer, a misnomer that survives to this day in how Christians view fictional literature.
Lately I’ve been spending quite a lot of time in Eckhard Schnabel’s incredible trio of books, Early Christian Mission (2 volumes) and Paul the Missionary. Those volumes are loaded with historic and cultural information about Paul’s missionary travels through ancient Roman cities and towns. On top of this, I have been reading several articles by Bruce Winter and have come to discover more fully the important role the cultural context factors into Paul’s mission and writings. I ordered a few of his books this morning.
And that brings me to a different genre altogether.
And this is where I need you.
I want to read more about this first century Roman world of the New Testament. I want to live in the world for a season. What was it like to live in the major cities? How was life for a common laborer or a slave? What were the philosophical influences in the air? What epic tales were woven into the common cultural heritage? What were the prominent cultural captivities and how did pagan temple life intrude? What was life like for the early Christians?
Non-fiction books are valuable for their details, but I’m also looking for some good historical fiction (with a strong stress on the word historical). Lately I’ve tried a few non-Christian authors. Harry Sidebottom is a scholar of 1st century warfare and his fictional works are good on ancient culture and battle tactics, but they’re also unnecessarily violent. Books by Simon Scarrow are set in the 3rd century, and are also quite realistic from what I’ve read, but they’re even more gratuitous.
Of Christian books, I have ordered a few books that look promising. Francine Rivers’ Mark of the Lion series looks good (3 volumes here, here, and here), although I suspect the series will have a strong romantic theme. I also plan to read Paul Maier’s, The Flames of Rome: A Novel. It’s an older work but Maier is a highly respected Lutheran scholar so I am hopeful. Have any of you read the books by Rivers or Maier?
So that’s a brief rundown of my thinking. I am searching for books about everyday life in the NT Roman world. Other technical non-fiction books would be great, but I’m especially searching for historical fiction recommendations.
Thanks for reading and sharing!
Sometimes I like to post excerpts from literature simply because I think they model great prose skill, like this excerpt from a historical novel set in WW2, The Winds of War by Herman Wouk. Wouk fought in the Pacific and his portrayals of the war have been acclaimed for their realism and accuracy. This quote is taken from near the end of The Winds of War, and takes place after the Pearl Harbor invasion (p. 884):
The darkness was merciful to Pearl Harbor. The smashed battleships were invisible. Overhead a clear starry black sky arched, with Orion setting in the west, and Venus sparkling in the east, high above a narrow streak of red. Only the faintest smell of smoke on the sea breeze hinted at the gigantic scene of disaster below. But the dawn brightened, light stole over the harbor, and soon the destruction and the shame were unveiled once more. At first the battleships were merely vague shapes, but even before all the stars were gone, one could see the Pacific Battle Force, a crazy dim double line of sunken hulks along Ford Island—and first in the line, the U.S.S. California.
Victor Henry turned his face from the hideous sight to the indigo arch of the sky, where Venus and the brightest stars still burned: Sirius, Capella, Procyon, the old navigation aids. The familiar religious awe came over him, the sense of a Presence above this pitiful little earth. He could almost picture God the Father looking down with sad wonder at this mischief. In a world so rich and lovely, could his children find nothing better to do than to dig iron from the ground and work it into vast grotesque engines for blowing each other up? Yet this madness was the way of the world. He has given all his working years to it. Now he was about to risk his very life at it. Why?
That is a picturesque and moving scene, one of many from Wouk’s writings. I look forward to reading his better-known War and Remembrance sometime in 2011 (DV), but after reading this article in The Paris Review I decided that my next historical fiction read would be The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson, which I hope to begin this weekend.
Are you reading any good literature? Did you read a great book earlier this summer? If you have any great excerpts to share please post those in the comments for us all to enjoy.
Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature (Harvest, 1982) p. 64:
Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. … Let us be proud of our being vertebrates, for we are vertebrates tipped at the head with a divine flame. The brain only continues the spine: the wick really goes through the whole length of the candle. If we are not capable of enjoying that shiver, if we cannot enjoy literature, then let us give up the whole thing and concentrate on our comics, our videos, our books-of-the-week.
One of the best little summaries of the value of literature in the Christian life comes from Leland Ryken’s book Windows To the World: Literature in Christian Perspective (Wipf and Stock, 2000). Here’s what Ryken writes on page 34:
“Literature is life. If you want to know what, deep down, people feel and experience, you can do no better than read the stories and poems of the human race. Writers of literature have the gift of observing and then expressing in words the essential experiences of people.
The rewards of reading literature are significant. Literature helps to humanize us. It expands our range of experiences. It fosters awareness of ourselves and the world. It enlarges our compassion for people. It awakens our imaginations. It expresses our feelings and insights about God, nature, and life. It enlivens our sense of beauty. And it is a constructive form of entertainment.
Christians should neither undervalue nor overvalue literature. It is not the ultimate source of truth. But it clarifies the human situation to which the Christian faith speaks. It does not replace the need for the facts that science and economics and history give us. But it gives us an experiential knowledge of life that we need just as much as those facts.
Literature does not always lead us to the City of God. But it makes our sojourn on earth much more a thing of beauty and joy and insight and humanity.”
Not long ago a blog commentor scolded me for featuring Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings on my blog. I guess its not spiritual enough or something. She didn’t say. (Why she didn’t haul me over the coals for Wodehouse is beyond me!).
But I was not offended by the comment. Actually I was a bit saddened. It breaks my heart that some Christians would not consider accepting LOTR for what it is, a magnificent moral epic that can only be explained—as is true of the greatest literature—as a gift from the benevolent hand of God.
Sometimes it seems that contemporary Christians can use some help in properly appreciating the gifts of literature that God has blessed us with. And I’m not just talking about Christian literature either. Martin Luther understood this fact well. Today I came across these two quotes about how Martin Luther treasured the ancient pagan book Aesop’s Fables (think: the tortoise and the hare).
The first quote is by George Fyler Townsend in the introduction to his translation of Aesop’s Fables (2005), page 10:
“These fables … were among the books brought into an extended circulation by the agency of the printing press. … The knowledge of these fables spread from Italy into Germany, and their popularity was increased by the favor and sanction given to them by the great fathers of the Reformation … . Martin Luther translated twenty of these fables, and was urged by Melanchthon to complete the whole; while Gottfried Arnold, the celebrated Lutheran theologian, and librarian to Frederick I, king of Prussia, mentions that the great Reformer valued the Fables of Aesop next after the Holy Scriptures.”
And here is the man himself, Martin Luther, as quoted in his Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), 54:210–211:
“It is a result of God’s providence that the writings of Cato and Aesop have remained in the schools, for both are significant books. Cato contains the most useful sayings and precepts. Aesop contains the most delightful stories and descriptions. Moral teachings, if offered to young people, will contribute much to their edification. In short, next to the Bible, the writings of Cato and Aesop are in my opinion the best…”
From C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge, 1961), pages 84–85:
“Many of the comments on life which people get out of Shakespeare could have been reached by very moderate talents without his assistance. For another, it may well impede future receptions of the work itself. We may go back to it chiefly to find further confirmation for our belief that it teaches this or that, rather than for a fresh immersion in what it is. We shall be like a man poking his fire, not to boil the kettle or warm the room, but in the hope of seeing in it the same pictures he saw yesterday. And since a text is ‘but a cheverel glove’ [from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night] to a determined critic—since everything can be a symbol, or an irony, or an ambiguity—we shall easily find what we want. The supreme objection to this is that which lies against the popular use of all the arts. We are so busy doing things with the work that we give it too little chance to work on us. Thus increasingly we meet only ourselves.”
Flannery O’Connor writes in Mystery and Manners, page 163:
“Ever since there have been such things as novels, the world has been flooded with bad fiction for which the religious impulse has been responsible. 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. His feeling about this may have been made more definite by one of those Manichean-type theologies which sees the natural world as unworthy of penetration. But the real novelist, the one with an instinct for what he is about, knows that he cannot approach the infinite directly, that he must penetrate the natural human world as it is.”