Tuesday, October 13, 2009

How Do You REALLY Feel?

I have an idea that it's politically incorrect to make a statement like, "I love Jewish novelists," even though it's a positive statement and it is, to date, true. Or at least I can accurately say I love the novels that Jewish novelists write. Chaim Potok, Bernard Malamud, and now Saul Bellow, are the writers whose books I love. I suspect I should and would love the works of Elie Wiesel also, but somehow I seem to have missed them thus far. Don't ask me why. (We could also include the Coen brothers in this, but they're not exactly novelists, and some of their stuff gives even me pause, though I have huge amounts of respect for them.)

Now what I'm trying to figure out is why I like Jewish fiction so much, and maybe also why, by and large, I find Christian novels so unappealing. There are exceptions, like C.S. Lewis (obviously!) and Tolkein (of course!), and I'm sure there are some out there today who write compelling or thought-provoking stories. I think the "Christian Publishing Industry" (can an industry be a Christian?) is trying to raise the bar these days on the kinds of books that hit the bookstore shelves, and three cheers to that, I say! But I haven't read the new generation of Christian fiction, because an enormous percentage of the small percentage of Christian fiction I have read is, in my opinion, just not that good. (That is probably not politically correct either.)

Even though I feel free to have strong opinions about this and to air them on the internet (potentially to my own undoing if I want to have any more play in arena of getting-books-published) I don't really feel very qualified to talk about this much because, as I say, I'm really only comparing the novels of three Jewish guys with the novels of a spattering of Christian ones, and I can't say that this is really a very well-researched point of view, or that there's a very representative cross-section of these books.

But here is my hunch. There are some similarities among the books of the three Jewish authors I'm citing. Often the action in the stories takes place as much in the characters' heads as it does internally. The characters may be at varying levels of Jewish Orthodoxy, but somehow their identity as Jews is ever-present. On the other hand, it is often not very overt. You can't forget that you're reading about Jewish characters in these books, even if they're not actually directly talking about it. The people in the stories are sometimes sort of caricatured (for example, Moses E. Herzog, about whom I'm thinking a lot right now because I'm reading Herzog), but they still ring true. They have identifiable thought patterns--either ones I've had myself or ones I must, come to think of it, have experienced others having. They struggle with the identity they impose on themselves, and with the one the world imposes on them. There's always a morality and there's always a message, but it is rarely if ever spelled out; the reader is, in a way, left to his or her own devices at the end of the book, to come to an interpretation themselves.

In the Christian fiction I've read (previously named authors mostly excepted, although even Lewis gets bogged down in his message sometimes), the characters generally seem flatter. The books are more plot-driven, and the plot, it seems to me, is often contrived. The characters usually have struggles, but they get worked out in the end, under the auspices of Christ. All the people the reader comes to care about (if the reader comes to care about them) become Christians by the end, if they aren't already. Things tie up neatly. There's an Answer. And just in case we didn't get it, it's usually spelled out for us.

This makes some people feel comfortable. I guess it makes evangelicals like me feel like the message got out there or something. But the problem is, I don't know that the people who we wish would hear the message are usually going to get it in this format. I think it's too bad. I think there is an Answer, and He is Jesus. But I don't think He usually ties up loose ends, exactly. I think walking with Him involves getting mad at Him, and trying to run away from Him, and fighting with Him, and then getting to the point where you realise life is often going to stink no matter what, but that you'd rather go through it all with Him than without.


chris e said...

To which I'm sure you would have added Chesterton also - and isn't it interesting that one is a mid to high church Anglican and the other two are Catholics.

I suspect Evangelicalism is too literal minded to be conducive to good fiction writing. I'm sure I read an article on this once.

BeckaS1117 said...

Jen, I feel the same way about new "Christian" music. I'm sure you've had the music discussion with my hubby, but it seems really lacking and I understand why a lot of Christian teens and adults would rather listen to mainstream music. I used to love artists like DC Talk, Newsboys, Michael W. Smith...but it seems to have gone really downhill.
Does this make sense to you, I'm exhausted and not sure I'm getting my point across! =o)

Jennwith2ns said...

Monday--I mean, CHRIS ;)--oh yes. Chesterton, too. How could I forget. I guess at least this way we're three and three. But yes, I'm sure it has something to do with that.

Becka--thanks for commenting. I totally get what you're saying. I have a blogpost on that coming, too, I think. If I ever get motivated enough to write it! Sometimes I wonder, too, if the people from the 80s and 90s that I liked, I only like for nostalgia's sake . . . even they often sacrifice art for message. Maybe we're supposed to? I don't think so, though. Why would I rather listen to people who are confused? Maybe I'm just too postmodern . . .

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