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.