Saturday, March 09, 2013

Preachiness or Historical Accuracy? Thoughts on Religion in Christian Fiction


There is an issue that seems seems relevant to all Christian Historical Fiction (and Christian fiction in general) and that is of course, religious content. Some people dislike this genre because of the religious content it inevitably includes.
Personally, I think it is just plain silly to complain about religious content in Christian fiction- the key word is Christian it is categorized as such for a reason.
Now admittedly, if a reader doesn't  realise a book is Christian when they pick it up then such complaints can be understandable, and even Christian readers do not seem to take well to novels which are overly 'preachy'.

Yet I believe it is possible to go to the opposite extreme. Perhaps in an effort to avoid appearing ‘preachy’ or contrived an author may choose to avoid overt or blatant religious and theological references in their books as much as possible, but is this always for the best?
One  reader expressed her view on the subject when she stated that “I like keeping some of the auxiliary characters as non-believers that… is much more realistic”.
 
This reviewer may have a point where the modern Western world in concerned, but I believe that her particular idea of ‘realism’ cannot so easily be applied to past cultures, nations and civilizations.
It is almost a given that the Medieval Period, for instance, was more conspicuously religious than our own, with religious institutions exercising a more pervasive influence, and people generally more likely to identify themselves with the dominant religion.
Christian Historical Fiction novels set in the medieval era are not nearly as common as those set in say, 1800s America, but comments made by reviewers of books set during the Middle Ages can shed an interesting light on this issue.

Whilst some people, as mentioned above, complain about overtly religious content in such novels, there are some who seem to have a different view. Take what this reviewer said of Rosanne E Lortz's first book 'I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince' for instance "...the aspect of this novel being Christian fiction... didn't bother me for the most part. The setting of the story was in a time when religion was important, and a key element of chivalry".

This reader is apparently not the only one who thinks this, and I have come across a number of reviews of historical novels in which similar sentiments have been expressed. It appears then, that where some historical periods are concerned, religious content is almost something which readers may expect to encounter as a reflection of the time.
Another reviewer wrote of 'Fortress of Mist' by Sigmund Brouwer the second of a trilogy set in the 1300s England that even though he did not regard the book as 'Christian Literature' ".....there is the presence of the Church which should really only be expected of a story taking place in medieval Europe. Expectations of anything else would be inaccurate."
These reviewers were not alone in holding such opinions- indeed they do not seem uncommon.

I tend to agree that it would in be historically inaccurate to have a novel set in Medieval Europe in which there were no references to the church, or one in which most of the characters were non-religious.

So, when it comes to the Middle Ages, the above mentioned reader may be wrong, because it may not be so very unrealistic for the majority of characters in a book set at this time to be religious. 
It seems that where some historical novels are concerned, religious content and characters do not constitute ‘preachiness’ but simply a realistic and accurate representation of a past society and its cultural norms. If this is the case, could it not be better for writers to be faithful to history and in doing so use the religious influence on past ages as an opportunity to explore Christian ideas and themes in their writing, instead of being afraid to be ‘too religious’?

2 comments:

  1. This reminds me of a post I made in a historical forum, which I might as well post here:

    The safe approach to attempting to recreate the mindset of someone in Antiquity (or at least a convincing imitation of it) is to start by eliminating all forms of contemporary political correctitude. After that just assume people of that time have normal preoccupations and reactions. Here's a working list of what needs to be avoided like the plague:

    1. Freedom is the noblest ideal, defined as being able to do what you like provided it doesn't in an obvious and direct way injure others. Loyalty, duty and honour are funny words or, at best, an irony.

    2. All men are equal. Social inequalities are artificial and oppressive. Hence a peasant with some character and the opportunity will treat a lord as being on his own level.

    3. Women are just as good as men at male activities. They fight just as well too.

    4. Free love is universal and socially acceptable. A society that does not accept it is artificial and oppressive.

    5. Religion is bad, bad, bad. The only person who can be excused for having religion is someone floating in a vague and benevolent religiosity devoid of any firm convictions. Clerics in particular are sodden hedonists or fanatical sadists. A society that to any extent ties its legal system to religion is artificial and oppressive.

    6. Condonation of legal violence in any form is wrong. This goes with an admiration for excessive personal violence considered to be fine provided its recipient can in some way be said to deserve it. The admirer is generally quite incapable of the violence he/she admires unless it is sublimated into gory video games or the like. Assume that someone in the 4th century could take care of himself but was not that quick to draw a sword or knife.

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    1. Wise advice indeed. In fact I may be so bold as to add a seventh to this list though it would apply more to Medieval people.

      "Assume that the people of the past were filthy, smelly, had no concept of hygiene and a pathological aversion to bathing. Have them perpetually infested with parasites, inhabiting streets flowing with excrement, or smoke-filled hovels teeming with vermin. Depict black teeth as having been in vogue, and table manners unheard of."


      Mind you, it can be amusing for the sake of simple ridiculousness to see little slips of girls wielding an array of hefty historical weapons in battle scenes. Even more so if they come out of the battle with unsoiled makeup and immaculately coiffed hair.

      Seriously though, seeing anything like the above in historical fiction is likely to sour the flavour for me, not matter how good the writing may be in any other way. I like to read and learn about the past and the people in it as they were (or as much like it was we can understand them to have been), not as 'modern people in fancy dress' to borrow the term one author coined.
      A favourite of mine that one- too frequently used.

      Anyhow, thanks for visiting and commenting. I see you've written a novel set in the late sixth century. That's very early Medieval (late Antiquity if you prefer) so it might be my cup of tea.
      Mind you, I don't think Constantine did Christianity many favours and am firmly Protestant in conviction. I know a Protestant Medievalist may be an Oxymoron in itself..

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