I've been too hard on Christian fiction. Not that it didn't have it coming. Amish romance, End Times sagas, spiritual warfare thrillers-- they all deserve the ribbing they get.
And I'll admit: It is empowering to dismiss an entire genre.By writing a blog post denouncing Christian fiction or CCM, the author subtly coronates himself as the King of Discerning Tastes. It's douche-ery to be sure, but a brand of douche-ery that's quite self-gratifying. All this rambling to say: Christian Fiction, I owe you an apology. I've found a few gems lately that explore themes of our ancient faith and still manage to tell a darn good story and stay true to the human condition. One of these fine novels was even released by a Christian Publisher, a fact that defies my well groomed prejudices.
Here are the three books demanding I step off my high horse:
A Thin Blue Smoke I'm not putting Worgul on the same plane as Steinbeck, but I have to say that he evoked many of the same emotions I felt when I read East of Eden. Worgul's portrait of the Kansas City Barbecue joint "Smoke Meat" was masterful. The 41 seat dive is just as much a character as LaVerne and Ferguson. Worgul does a difficult thing in his novel: He explores the spirituality of two central characters without flattening them into flimsy flannel-graph caricatures.Both characters are deeply flawed, layered, and likable characters. God intersects these men without destroying their flaws, layers, or likability. These men are cut from the same cloth as the patriarchs in Genesis, just with a dot of rib sauce on their cheeks.
A History of Stone and Steel
A History of Stone and Steel tells the story of Paul Keppel’s struggle to comes to terms having lived a life he only half-chose. As a teen his grandfather the zealous preacher and his steel worker father had opposing visions of Paul’s future. His preacher grandfather’s breath reeked fire and brimstone while whisky suited his father’s taste more. Inevitably, Paul’s life launched sideways. He finds himself a depressed and struggling TA at a college, trying to cobble enough of an existence to support his young family. Reoccurring nightmares and chronic headaches and the news his grandfather is dying of brain cancer convince Paul he also is not long for this life. The prospect of not having to life to see the fruit of his behavior gives him permission to stray into erratic behavior as he attempts to salvage his marriage and whatever else is left in his dead end life.
Fisher’s debut foray into novel writing is brilliant. Every facet of his protagonist’s life is in flames by the end of the first chapter. The beats alternate between tragic and comic with ease and occasionally embody both at once. Fisher guides his readers through the steel mill, the college, the church, the bottom of a bourbon bottle, and through the depth’s human spirit, each setting with equal ease.
A History of Stone and Steel also explores Paul’s conflicted relationship with his grandfather’s God. Paul sees his grandfather as God’s unreliable narrator and as a result can’t trust what he thinks he knows about God, or if there is a God at all. Spiritual fiction, especially written from a Christian point of view, is difficult to pull off well due to the temptation to impose a “Prodigal Son” template on every story arc or to use God as deus ex machina. Fisher stands each of these devices on their head to create a conclusion that is surprising, inevitable, and satisfying.
The Most Important Thing Happening
The Most Important Thing Happening is hands down the most creative novel to come out of a Christian publishing house (David C. Cook) since the invention of Christian publishing houses. It's Inception meets J.J. Abram's Fringe meets Haruki Murakami's knack for creating adult fairy tales. Mark Steele offers his readers eleven short stories, each one compelling in its own right. It's not until six or seven stories in that the reader begins to suspect that each stories is interrelated to each other, and that each narrative is a tile in a larger mosaic. Steele offers life and death conflict, witty and smart dialogue, and windows into the big questions about human existence-- suffering, human purpose and agency. He does this barely mentioning God. To be precise, he mentions exactly "one drop of God" and no more. I finished this book out of breath, the plot drove me forward even though the metaphysical questions made me want to linger. I closed this book satisfied with the connections I was able to make at the same time knowing there's more to me gleaned by a second and third reading.The Most Important Thing Happening is currently the number one book in my "to read" pile.