Today is Easter Sunday, so for this week’s book blog, I wanted to discuss Christianity in fiction. This is not to say Christian fiction, which is quite different and something I may talk about later.
I just finished the beautifully written book A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb. In the novel, Helen is a spirit who is able to enter into the body of a girl named Jenny, a depressed teenager whose soul voluntarily left her body behind. Helen has entered Jenny’s body because she was able to speak to a teenaged boy at Jenny’s school. Therefore, at first, the book seems as if it is a love story. However, the focus shifts to Jenny’s life at home, living with two religious parents who oppress her at every turn.
Jenny is forced into a prayer corner each morning. She must copy Bible verses about changing behavior and punishments in hell for rebelling. Her parents enlist the help of a police officer from their church to investigate her behavior outside their home. In one of the most shocking scenes of the book, Jenny questions their methods and has food taken away from her. She is told, “You’re on fasting and Bible.” We see scenes of Jenny required to stand before her father and have her clothing choices inspected and approved, Jenny’s belongings searched and destroyed, and even books such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights censored and denied to her. Jenny’s fanatical (and hypocritical) parents control every aspect of her life, and even Helen, grateful to be a part of life again, finds her spirit dying in their tyrannical household.
I found online reactions to these scenes to be fascinating.
One woman writes, “Negatives: makes religion look really bad.”
Another states: "Lastly, there were complaints about the religious themes in the book. I’m not sure if the reviewers thought the book was preachy or too negative toward religion, but again, I thought the religious theme fit the story. How do you have a book about ghosts without addressing the question of what happens to you when you die? Somehow the God question has to be addresses. As for the strictly religious family that Helen ended up in, I’ve actually met parents like this in my past. I don’t think they were unrealistic."
While she believed it was realistic, another reviewer disagrees:
"My biggest complaint is that Christianity is yet again stereotyped as a hypocritical, ignorant, male-dominating religion. The father "leads" his family in prayer and then commits adultery on the side. He is adamant about his daughter being modest, and then he looks upon her with some sort of desire after realizing that she's had sex. It's sick. I am REALLY tired of the media and popular culture depicting Christians in this light. True Christians are nothing like the people who are often represented as such on television, and in this case, literature."
The difficulty in the books like this one and in other media is that Christianity is portrayed as “Good Friday” Christianity—the weight, guilt, and shame of your sins upon you, making you feel as if you can never be good enough. It seems oppressive, repressive, and cruel. Characters in books of this type never move into “Easter Territory,” experiencing the joy that comes from forgiveness or an accepting heart
Oppression and repression are common themes in young adult literature, and it is no surprise to me that a book would address this issue, which is a reality for women in certain religious communities across the country. A Certain Slant of Light reminded me of Sunlight Gardener from Stephen King and Peter Straub’s Talisman. The books have almost nothing in common in terms of style or plot, but the theme of religious oppression is the same. Gardener is a charismatic “Christian” owner of the Sunlight Home for Wayward Boys. There are long passages describing how Gardener administers the abuse and torture of teenage boys. Like Jenny, the boys are forced to confess their sins to one another and are oppressed by Gardener’s hypocrisy. Rebellion only leads to more extreme torture. Eventually Gardener murders several boys.
As a Christian, I have mixed reactions to this theme. On the one hand, I have known people who grew up in families like this. I should state here that I have known people who grew up in families like this that were not Christian as well—Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Atheist, and Agnostic parents can oppress their children just as much as Christian families. Again, that is not our discussion for today.
For a short time, I lived in an area of the country where churches were predominantly fundamentalist. It shocked me how much teens were oppressed, particularly the girls. I knew girls in their twenties who had never been allowed to date, who were waiting for a suitable boy to ask their father’s permission. One young woman explained to me that as a teenager, she was not allowed to watch television or see movies because of the evils of Hollywood. She was not allowed to cut her hair, wear pants, or learn to drive. Another young woman explained that in her family, the boys were allowed to leave home, but the girls were “encouraged” to stay until they were married. When she decided to get a job, move into an apartment, and go to college, her parents nearly disowned her. She was 25 at the time. In this instance, I believe her father was using Christianity as an excuse to control his children.
Similarly, Christianity (like many other religions and philosophies) has been used as an excuse by world leaders who began wars truly driven by greed and the desire for power. Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, for example, were behind the Spanish Inquisition, which required people of Muslim and Jewish faiths to convert to Christianity or leave Spain. While ostensibly for Christian reasons, this was actually done to further consolidate their power in Spain and gain complete control over their subjects.
So I can understand that for some people, religion may have been used to control their behavior and dominate them when they were children. However, there is another more predominant side of growing up in a Christian family that is not portrayed in the media, (with the exception of a few Christian films and books), and that is freedom. I have only felt freedom within my faith. Any oppression I felt was legitimate guilt over something I had done wrong. As Christians, my parents did teach me right from wrong (the law). More importantly, they taught me about grace—that wonderful gift that allows God to free us of that guilt and shame through forgiveness. A great book on this is Grace Based Parenting by Tim Kimmel and Max Lucado, which, “offers a refreshing new look at parenting. Rejecting rigid rules and checklists that don't work, Dr. Kimmel recommends a parenting style that mirrors God's love, reflects His forgiveness, and displaces fear as a motivator for behavior.” The book can be found here:
The Easter message is that anyone can embrace this freedom. The weight and oppression of all that we have done wrong is remembered during Lent and on Good Friday, a season before Easter. Christians believe that God came down to earth and was made man. In order to free humanity from the weight of the sins we committed such as adultery, stealing, lying, cheating, and murder, God sacrificed himself so that we would not have to bear the punishment. A better explanation of what I’m trying to say can be found here: http://www.gotquestions.org/blood-sacrifice.html
There is a great joy and freedom in forgiveness. Even if you’re not a Christian, when you forgive someone, you’re able to let go of whatever wrong they committed against you. It feels as if a weight has been lifted from your chest. Similarly, if you ask for someone’s forgiveness and they grant it freely without any hesitation, your spirit feels joy and release. This is what my faith does for me on a daily basis. I am forgiven, I forgive, and as a result, I am able to grow closer in relationship to God.
I’m glad that A Certain Slant of Light tackled the difficult issue of religion, and I do think that there is a bit of redemption for Helen, Jenny, and a few of the other characters. But this is brief and such a small feel-good moment, it almost seems lost in the condemnation of Jenny’s hypocritically fanatical Christian household. I loved the book, I just wish we had seen more of Jenny and Helen after they find redemption and forgiveness.
I think the difficulty in the books like this one and in other media is that Christianity is portrayed as “Good Friday” Christianity—the weight, guilt, and shame of your sins upon you, making you feel as if you can never be good enough. It seems oppressive, repressive, and cruel. Characters in books of this type never move into “Easter Territory,” experiencing the joy that comes from forgiveness or an accepting heart that embraces the good in others and tries to do more good in the world.
I think this is an area in literature and life that can still be explored. One author who does this is Richard Paul Evans in his series beginning with the book The Walk.
Beyond just straight Christian fiction, the interesting lives of people once they find redemption (release, liberation, deliverance, rescue, salvation, conversion, etc.). I’d love to see more mainstream books incorporate this at the beginning of a book instead of at the end!