“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.” 2 Peter 1:16
This verse is part of the Epistle reading from this morning’s liturgy for the Feast of Transfiguration, and it sparked a shower of ideas I feel are directly related to my ongoing study of Orthodox children’s literature.
If you read my post from yesterday (7 Serious Questions about Orthodox Children’s Books), you know I’m studying Orthodox children’s literature as a genre, a mission, a product, an experience – everything about it that I can learn and ponder. This research quickly touched on another ongoing quest of mine, to envision and create truly faithful, truly literary work. It’s possible the principles of this effort are fundamentally the same, no matter the age of your expected readers.
But what struck me with such force in this Bible verse is the question of clever myths and eyewitness accounts. At first glance, you’d think that was a reference to fiction and non-fiction, wouldn’t you? And that is true in a literal sense. Peter is explaining to his readers that he didn’t make up all that stuff about Christ. It happened. He was there and saw it.
Hold that thought.
TWO CATEGORIES OF CHRISTIAN FICTION
In my observation, “Christian fiction” can be divided into two categories: books about people “being Christian” and books in which the inherent Christianity of creation shines forth. These two characteristics aren’t mutually exclusive in their natures, but they don’t often appear together. There are plenty of instances in the human attempt to infuse faith in fiction in which the agenda left no room for anything to shine, not even the writing. It strikes me now that while immature literary skill is certainly a factor in such cases, lack of faith might be the greater fault.
I don’t mean that the writer is not Christian enough to write well. Not at all. I mean that the writer, perhaps unconsciously, assumes that the reader won’t see the truth, won’t be converted, unless everything is blatantly spelled out. The reader must be convinced by the writer. Persuasion must occur, and the more urgent your personal conviction, the harder it is to trust persuasion to anything but your own arguments.
PERSUASION AS FAILING FAITH
This reflects a two-fold faithlessness, in my view. First, it assumes that the reader is not intelligent enough to detect or appreciate nuance, or symbolism. When the murderer makes a point of turning off the lights so he can commit his foul deed in darkness, the reader won’t realize that spiritual darkness is also indicated. Are our readers actually so dense? Do they really need us to explain everything we’re doing? Do we need to hear them say, “I see what you did there”? I doubt it.
In fact, I believe readers bring a wealth of meaning to our words, drawing on their own thoughts and memories. The author is not the only one able or likely to infuse a text with meaning. We give birth to our stories, but their lives extend beyond us when we send them into the world. Like children, we must let them grow into the life God made for them, even when they travel beyond our horizons, even as we acknowledge we’ll never know all the people who read them, all the ways they’ll be misread, reconstructed, and understood.
Bringing the Man Downstairs
The second faithlessness of the over-explained Christian novel is the assumption that God is not everywhere present, filling all things. I’ve recently encountered fascinating scraps of the “re-enchantment” discussion swirling in theological, literary, sociological, and other circles. The primary value in the conversation, to me, is the startling reminder that God IS everywhere. Several years ago, Fr. Stephen Freeman wrote a book called Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, in which he takes on the worldview behind calling God “the man upstairs.” The man UPSTAIRS. Not the man down here with us. Not a presence in the air and earth and human life around us. The man somewhere else.
We enable a seismic shift in Christian literary art, for children and adults, when we bring God back downstairs. DO you believe God is EVERYWHERE present? Then you will be able to write Him into your fiction simply by manifesting the patterned loveliness of His works. Metaphors work because God is downstairs. Symbol is inherently, intrinsically spiritual. It’s our second language, the code of our invisible dimension, and God made it and speaks through it. With His merciful grace, sometimes we can, too. Sometimes, with sweat and prayer and those holy, euphoric bursts of inspiration, we can write the story of realization, our small visions of the miraculous reality.
And that’s why in 2 Peter 1:16, I see an affirmation of well-made Christian fiction. The father of lies will always provide us with clever myths, and his myths may masquerade as light. But fiction crafted from keen awareness of that magnificent Presence? That kind of fiction needs only symbol, finely observed, to become an eyewitness account.