Sunday, September 13, 2009

Spiritual Junk Food

As a young teenager, I could devour three books in one week, and I often was the first to take a new book out of the church library, especially if the title in question was in my favourite genre, the Christian Historical Romance. I was known to walk around the house with the book, reading while brushing my teeth or while making crackers and peanut-butter. At times I could be so lost in the world of the book, I would be completely oblivious to someone speaking to me from three feet away. My lap was a favourite of our cat's because I would sit so still for so long. I especially liked books with pictures of a beautiful young woman in period dress with a handsome young man in the background, the love interest who, if not already a Christian, would be drawn to God by the sheer beauty and sweetness of the woman who would resist his advances, but would inevitably share a passionate kiss with him half way through the book. The greater the attractiveness of the cover art, the more I liked the book. The books varied from poorly written with stock characters to fairly well-written with characters of some depth, but most were not of literary quality. I read them all as escapist literature, deriving added enjoyment from learning about the period they were set in.

an example of the type of cover I liked; not a book I have read

In high school, my English teacher introduced me to books like The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, which I wrote a small piece on without much insight, and The Color Purple by Alice Walker, which I stopped reading after being morally offended by Celie's and Shug's relationship. As a teenager, I read some Jane Austen as well, but not for her novel's literary value, rather, for their elements of romance.
When I became an English major in university, in the early stages of my program, before acquiring discerning literary taste, I wondered why we could not study a book from a Christian contemporary author; something in the historical romance vein could be a welcome change from the standard literary classics or the less morally upstanding contemporary fiction. At the same time as I was gaining a sense of literary snobbery, I was also attending a church without a library, so I stopped reading the latest offerings in the Christian romance genre. I still bought every book that my favourite author Francine Rivers wrote, but I didn't even read a Karen Kingsbury book until one was given to me as a gift. My time for leisure reading was curtailed by all the short stories, plays, and novels I was required to read for my classes. Once in awhile I would browse through books in the Christian bookstore and see what was out there, remembering how fun reading books like that had once been for me.
I recently read some descriptions of Christian novels in a book club catalogue. Many of them were set in Amish country and were about young Amish widows getting a second chance at love, or beautiful, yet plainly attired, young Amish girls falling in love with outsiders and weighing the possibility of being shunned against their conflicted love. At the time, I wondered if I could immerse myself again in this type of fiction or if I had grown too far away from it. Now I wonder if the kind of books I used to enjoy were harmless escapism or were they the equivalent of spiritual junk food, fluffy bits of superficial spirituality that kept me from seeing the complexities of real life faith and relationships? Or was the problem more my way of reading them, as an escape from life? I realize all Christian novels are not mere superficial drivel or candy-coated spirituality, but often spiritual depth is missing and the fictional world lacks the moral ambiguities encountered in real life. Just because few objectionable moral things happen in a novel, does that make it a better book than a book like The Color Purple? Can you recommend any books by contemporary Christian authors that have depth and insight? The Shack comes to mind as a book that does not shy away from the pain of real life.


Anonymous said...


you don't seem to get many comments here, so I should make a point of telling you how much I enjoy reading your blog. It's one of only 3 blogs I follow (and one of those is my mother's, so does that even count? and the other is an academic blog for my field of study). I look so forward to your occasional posts. (I'm not sure they'd be as special if they came more often, kinda like how the olympics seemed to lose a little of its mystique when we started having one every two years instead of every 4).

that said, I was checking today and saw no new posts yet, but then noticed that I had somehow missed this one from last year! It was kinda like pulling your spring jacket out after the winter and finding $20 you left there last year.

Anyway, I'm not sure you'd appreciate the same authors as me, but to answer your question directly, some of my favourites as far as "christian literature" go would be:

*Fred buechner has got to be the top. He has a lot of non-fiction too which you might check out. But start with his fiction. Perhaps "On the road with the archangel" or "Godric" or "son of laughter" or "brendan."

*flannery o conner's short stories continue to provoke a lot of thought in me. Get the big anthology of them, and tackle them one at a time. They're very symbolic, so don't read just the surface and think you got it.

*One that I personally like but don't "love" but think you might be more fond of given the other authors in your profile woudl be Joanne Gerber. try her collection "in the misleading absence of light."


Suzanne said...

Thanks Anonymous for your comment. I didn't think I had too many readers other than family, especially since I post so infrequently. I have written a couple of posts this year, but I deleted them. I am glad you enjoy my blog though, that encourages me to write more in the future.
I will definitely have to look up Fred Buechner and Joanne Gerber; I hadn't heard of them. I have read a couple of Flannery O Conner's short stories, and she is one of my English prof's favourite authors.