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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

You Are What You Read

A couple of weeks ago, David Rogers tagged me with a game that asked me to list some books I've read recently. It sort of made the rounds through the blogosphere (again), and many of my fellow bloggers had played along. There are categories, such as "One book that changed your life" or " One book you'd want on a desert island." I posted my answers on the Stepchild blog, but that's not the point. The point is that it took me a very long time to decide what books to list, and not for lack or plenty of recently read books.

At first, I filled out the questionnaire without putting too much thought into it. Nobody really reads that blog anyway. It was while I was proof reading that I hesitated. Every book I had listed was "Christian." Every one. I stopped to think for a second. Was "Searching For God Knows What" my favorite book ever? Would I really want to read "A New Kind of Christian" over and over if I was stranded on a desert island? Had any "Christian" book made me laugh (on purpose), ever?

My mind flipped through the pages of some of the great literature I've had the privilege of reading (and -in the case of university- skimming): Dickens, Hawthorne, Steinbeck. These guys wrote books. Most "Christian" books are glorified how-to manuals or sermons I'd never sit through. They don't really move you, and if they do, it's likely because you've been lulled into a "Christian" coma by the garbage they sell in the local Bible bookstore.

How else can you explain 16 books in the "Left Behind" series?

So I went back to the book list game, and I filled in the blanks with non"Christian" books. Real books. And while I admit that I left out my favorite C.S. Lewis title just out of spite, I like to think that my "secular" list is more honest. Those are the books that have affected the way my imagination works. The best part about them, Poe and
Salinger, is that they changed the way I think without actually setting out to do that.

When I think about it, nearly every "Christian" book I've ever read was written in an attempt to influence the way I think. It's evident by the text (no matter what the genre) that most of the authors are trying to teach me something. From the beginning, they set out to change my mind about something. Instead of telling a story for the sake of the beauty or honesty of it, they start with an agenda and go from there. How to have a better understanding of ministry or steps toward the full Christian life. Even the biographies are trying to convince me that so-and-so was a good man or that what's-his-name was what a Christian ought to be.

Beauty. Good story-telling. True creativity. These things, if you can find them at all in "Christian" literature, are accidental.

So I think I'm happy with my list as it stands. I did include one "Christian" book after all. Sure I've read some great religious books. Some have influenced me quite a bit. But despite all their zealous attempts at making me a better Christian, they remain largely forgettable compared to truly good books.

9 comments:

cate hanchez said...

I like your perspective. There is much to be learned from secular literature. Modern "Christian fiction" is, for the most part, unreadable to me.

Blythe Lane said...

Yes. I agree wholeheartedly.

Found your blog a while back via Watchman. Sure enjoying your thoughts and persepective on life...

Anonymous said...

Salinger is excellent. Hemingway. Brave New World. others. I will say that I've enjoyed reading gordon miller, erwin mcmanus, rob bell, john piper, however. I'm sure i could list other "Christian" authors as well. But, your overall point is very well taken.

Bryan Riley

shannon said...

dear god - i couldn't even finish 'new kind of christian' it was so poorly written! seriously mcclaren needs to avoid fiction at all costs!

i've been through several music-burning phases in my life but I think over the past 10 years or so i've got to the point where i'm letting art, literature and music defend itself to me aethetically before theologically.

and that has sadly come to mean that my favorite writers are a homosexual, a mormon and a humanist (coupland, card, asimov). it would be very cool for them all to be orthodox christians, but sadly that's not the case at this point. however, i feel like it would be lying for me to pretend to like the art created by someone who has views of which i "approve".

Anonymous said...

I'm still processing an experience I had a few days ago while reading "Searching for God Knows What." I found myself enthralled by the first few chapters, then I realized that there was an overarching theme and order to the book...and it made me sad. Having just a few pages left, I've honestly enjoyed the message Mr. Miller sends, but not in the way I did initially. When I thought it was only a series of vignetts, I felt like a participant. Together, Donald and I were processing life as it came. Messy, organic, and unresolved. In finding the theme my naivete was shattered.
I guess that is why I love Literature. It enganges. I struggle and yearn alongside the characters not knowing what is to come or how I "should" respond. Therein lies the flawed humanity, and from there emerges Truth.

stepchild said...

Blythe,
Thanks for reading!

Bryan,
Yeah, I really like the writers you mentioned, too. I kind of wish some of those guys would write a novel, or a book of poetry.

Still haven't figured out the beta comment problem, though...

Shannon,
On your recommendation, I'm reading Jpod next. Maybe I'll post on it.

Anonymous,
I know what you mean about Miller. He does a great job of pulling you in. If only he would just tell the stories, instead of making it all one big lesson!

Bryan Riley said...

God kinda does that with the Bible, though. The whole series of stories really just tells One Story...

cafeaddict said...

i worked in a christian bookstore for over 5 years. being an avid reader, i had lots of time to read what the christian world has to offer. i think i made it through one series of christian fiction and a couple of the left behind books (more out of morbid curiosity than anything) and then i just couldn't do it anymore. the horribly written plot lines, the paper thin character development, the overwhelming "how can i present the 5 spiritual laws in fiction format" just did me in. couldn't stomach it anymore. i turned back to what i love most--classical fiction. but don't be deceived, these authors had motives too, messages to get out, agendas to accomplish. just read any book by dostoevsky, tolstoy, steinbeck and you will see themes, critiques, sermonizing over something. it doesn't bother me because no author writes out of a void. what bothers me about christian fiction is the lack of respect for literature and writing itself. how could those who know Creativity better than anyone be the worst at it? such a dilemma for me.

oh and a few other things i learned during my time in christian book world...

...just cause you can preach don't mean you can write
...put the name jesus on any ole piece of crap and it will sell.
...the word "steps" added to any title will increase its sells
...christian fiction and self-help books are where the most money is made
...there is still a niche for devotional/studies bibles if you can think of a forgotten people segment of the population like "a new study bible for single, twice divorced, ex-pastors who used to be catholic altar boys"

shannon said...

stepchild,
yeah - Jpod might not be the best entry point for you... i'd read Microserfs first. they're both good but i like Microserfs better.

RE: Miller - i'm just going to echo what everyone else said. i felt very tricked by this book, i read the first chapter or so at the bookstore and thought "how cool - a guy who's sort of breaking the mold" and then at about chapter 3 the thin veneer of post-evangelicalism broke through and it was back to the same-old apologetic insights we've seen before.

bryan - re: the bible
you know, i think you're really towing the party line throwing in that the bible is "One Big Story About God Dude!" back in the day we'd call that a sunday school answer and you'd be disqualified from anyone taking you seriously for the rest of the discussion. i mean, of course, the bible is all about God - but how can we really say, "it's all just one story". i think that we as modern individuals would like the bible to fit into some sort easily classifiable description. that way we can create a soundbite that just says, "the bible is god's story" or something equally mundane that we can attach to a church billboard or use as a bullet point in our 3 bullet point sermon. but does the bible really allow itself to be classifiable in this way? i've heard discussion about meta-narratives in the scripture, and i'm interested in those sort of conversations, but it's the singular thinking that says things like, 'the bible is really easy' or 'the bible is your life's instruction book' that makes my non-christian friends think that most christians are simple minded.