Do the books you read pass the test? by Maureen Lang

Image from Bing Free Images

Image from Bing Free Images

I recently tuned in to a radio debate on the merits of reading commercial vs literary or classic novels. The focus was supposed to be on the romance genre, but both guests—two Phd’s from different universities—seemed to be talking as much about Christian fiction in general as about romance.

One professor was a great defender of genre fiction, having talked to a variety of voracious readers of Christian fiction. The other professor was a staunch champion of classic literature, convinced that once a reader develops a taste for the best writing they’d never choose to settle for the dreck that is today’s commercial Christian fiction. One thing I didn’t expect was the literature-minded professor’s surprise to hear of many avid Christian fiction readers who also read classics. Count me in that group, so I thought it was common practice.
Anyone who’s been around book lovers—or just people in general—should know there’s no accounting for taste. That phrase is a cliche for a reason! It’s universal; one person’s junk is another person’s treasure, so taste in books should be no exception. But it was sad to hear the old argument against Christian fiction as being potentially unhealthy for people by stirring up dissatisfaction with real life by idealizing what life could be via fiction. I’m not sure it’s fiction so much that does that (aren’t we smart enough to decipher reality from fiction?) but rather that people are fully capable of becoming dissatisfied with life with or without books. In fact, it’s my belief that a satisfying, entertaining story can enhance life!

Another argument was to call Christian fiction “one note” (vs. the symphony found in deeper, classic literature) and that Christian authors take themselves too seriously. Other than finding that a bit condescending, I wondered why she felt this way. If our goal in Christian fiction is to remind readers of the spiritual dimension in life, something secular fiction avoids, then isn’t that a worthy aspiration? The classics professor maintained throughout the debate that today’s Christian fiction doesn’t demand the reader to process the content thoughtfully, that to read such shallow work can in fact be done thoughtlessly.

This made me wonder if the professor devoted to the classics had read much current Christian fiction, because she insisted they rarely address life’s real complexities. She did say she’d read a number of Christian fiction books that were nominated for a Christy, represented as the best of the best, but I didn’t catch how long ago that might have been. I can name a number of current authors who regularly address real issues, starting with authors right here at Christians Read.

Another aspect brought up was the emotional impact. One caller said she had to wean herself off of Christian romance because it aroused emotions in her she didn’t want to feel. I do admit there are seasons in life when certain types of reading might not be beneficial. For example, when I was single but wanting to be married, I didn’t even read the Song of Solomon because it only reminded me of what I didn’t have. I avoided romance reading in general in those days, so I understand if someone else feels that way. But there are plenty of other entertaining Christian genres that offer just that—entertainment that honors God.

Sadly, they took a call from a pastor who insisted Christian romance is for woman what pornography is for a man. This was thoroughly debated on a blog a few years ago, and from the many comments it appeared to be a hot topic then. But I’m glad to say both professors refused to take Christian romance that far. Christian fiction should wear the “Christian” label for a reason, not simply because it’s a story without bad language or graphic sex, but because there is more than just a man-woman relationship going on in its pages. Rather than listening to their own hearts, as the debunkers of Christian romance say, the best Christian fiction portrays characters who are trying to get their relationship with God right first. The spiritual conflict can play a part in keeping the couple apart, but real commitment to each other usually comes only after both the man and the woman acknowledge their most important relationship is with God.

Bottom line? The classics professor challenged readers everywhere to put what they’re reading to the Philippians 4:8 test:
“…Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.”

That much, I agree! We just disagree about the limits of excellence. I love the classics, but in a day when we have so many more choices to fill our leisure time, I believe it’s okay to read a book that may not have the same kind of depth. If a story offers a wholesome spirit and winsome characters it can engage me just as well.

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About Maureen Lang

Author of a dozen novels, Maureen Lang has won the Selah Award, a Holt Medallion, FHL's Reader's Choice Award, and been a finalist in such contests as the Christy, the Rita, the Carol, Book Buyer's Best, and others. Before publication she was the recipient of a Golden Heart and a Genesis (then called the Noble Theme). She resides with her husband and kids in the Chicago area. Titles by Maureen Lang All In Good Time Bees In The Butterfly Garden Springtime Of The Spirit Whisper On The Wind Look To The East My Sister Dilly On Sparrow Hill The Oak Leaves Remember Me Pieces Of Silver
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7 Responses to Do the books you read pass the test? by Maureen Lang

  1. I totally agree, Maureen. I’m not even sure why they were debating the issue. People read what they like, and no “intellectual” has the right to tell us what we should and should not read. Only the Holy Spirit has that right.

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    • Maureen Lang says:

      It was amazing to me that there was any kind of judgment against Christian, God-honoring fiction! So true about following the convictions God lays on our hearts. Thanks for that thought!

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  2. I’m with you, Maureen! I love reading classics, but I very much enjoy books that are being written now, too–both CBA and ABA. But I have lots of reader friends who wouldn’t touch a classic with a ten foot pole! Does that make then less serious readers? Not in my book. (Pun intended!) What I personally enjoy about reading a different variety of books and books written in a variety of different eras, is discovering how people process life and how that has changed or stayed the same.

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    • Maureen Lang says:

      Thanks, Anne. Your note reminded me of how I felt after I pushed the “publish this blog post” button. I wondered at my last line, inferring the classics have depth that commercial fiction doesn’t. That’s the old argument between modern literary and commercial as well. If by depth they mean it takes longer to “get” what they’re writing, that we need to re-read and dwell on the symbolism and nuances and meaning behind the words and images, well . . . that can be true of commercial fiction, too. But in classic and literary fiction the style is usually far more detailed than more commercial styles, which is likely why a lot of your friends and mine won’t read classics. We’re too used to our fast, microwave society!

      It’s so true that the gist of many classic novels reveals how little we’ve changed, even though our society has. Love/pride/envy/compassion, etc. are just as real today as they were 150 years ago. We watch characters process that and share a little more of the human experience, I think – whether it’s expressed in a literary, classic or commercial novel.

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  3. Susan Fryman says:

    I found this blog quite interesting and am total agreement with you Maureen. Of course, we’re not mindless folks who can’t separate real life from fiction. The same could be said of TV. I’m quite careful what I watch on TV just as I am about what I read. I watch and read for entertainment. Christian fiction has and will continue to improve my Spiritual life. So sad that the pastor didn’t know what he was talking about; equating Christian romance to pornography for men. Much of the secular romance is the equivalent of pornography in my opinion. I’m 54 and back in my early 20’s God worked with me to where I’ve made the commitment since then to only read real Christian fiction. Sadly some of our Christian fiction has swayed to un Christ like things, such as cursing, too vivid of romance scenes, etc. I won’t read a book with cursing or anything else I don’t approve of in it. I’ve even stopped reading a book no matter how entertaining I think it might be if it doesn’t meet my standards. Great blog today. Blessings, Susan Fryman

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    • Maureen Lang says:

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Susan. This is exactly the kind of discernment we’re called to have, and we should trust the tug of the Holy Spirit to guide us.

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  4. Pingback: Review: Reinventing Rachel by Alison Strobel | Books in the Burbs

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