Sigrid Undset’s mother and father were freethinking intellectuals, her mother a polyglot, and her father an archeologist. They traveled widely before her father’s illness sidelined him. From him she acquired her interest and expertise in medieval studies. After a failed marriage, Undset underwent a spiritual crisis which led her into the Church of Rome. It was likely her love of the Middle Ages that predisposed her conversion to Catholicism. The Lutheran church was the national, albeit nominal, church of Norway, and her Catholicism was something of a cause célèbre, but the dead formalism of the state church was both a cause and consequence of spiritual malaise.
Although Undset wrote a number of contemporary novels, she set her major Catholic novels in the Middle Ages. Authors generally write about their own time and place because they draw on their own experience. They know about their own time of life, both consciously and unconsciously, with a depth and density, intensity and immediacy that is never within reach in writing about the past or, in the case of the SF genre, the future, or, in the case of the fantasy genre, an alternative world. And, of course, their contemporaries can more readily identify with the present and immediate past.
On the other hand, this timeframe also limits an author. The more you and your readers know about the way things are, the less artistic license you enjoy, for you have to fit your story into an exacting and preexisting framework of facts. So a writer has rather more freedom if he situates his story in the past. He can still give the story a realistic feel without being hemmed in by an oppressive weight of public data.
The creative art always involves a creative tension between form and freedom. Without some boundaries, there is no where to start. Reality, by imposing an upper limit on your range of options, makes it possible to choose from a manageable array of options, for the creative art is as much an act of omission as commission.
Why did Undset choose to situate her major Catholic novels in the past—the distant past? Two or three of reasons suggest themselves. To begin with, she was not a Roman Catholic when she began her medieval sagas. In a way, she wrote herself into Catholicism by writing about medieval Catholicism.
In addition, authors like to write about interesting people and events, and when they live in exciting times, that makes their job easy. A Bassani or Malory or Melville or Hemingway or Crane or Conrad could plow their life experience straight into their novels because they has such dramatic material at their fingertips. Even Linebarger could smuggle his varied experience into a literary masque.
There is, of course, a complementary danger in writing about your own time and place. Hemingway wrote about the lost generation. That made his work compelling to his contemporaries, but diminishes its enduring appeal. The particular threatens to swallow the universal. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about the roaring Twenties. But how dated it seems!
Conversely, a fantasy or SF author writes about a world that never was. Although this lends the genre a certain timeless, archetypal appeal, it carries with it the opposing peril of the universal swallowing up the particular. For it becomes the story of no one living nowhere at no time.
Inter-war Norway was something of a cultural and political backwater. It had escaped the physical and psychic trauma that scarred the major European powers during WWI. What do you write about when you live during dull times, in a rather sedate and insular culture? Unset had already canvassed the contemporary scene in earlier novels, so there was no where else to go but back into the past.
The other reason is that, unlike, say, France or Italy or Bavaria, contemporary Norway did not supply a preexisting stageset for a Catholic novel. By withdrawing into the past, Undset withdrew into medieval Catholicism. She did not have to carve out a little Catholic cubical for herself within a nominally Lutheran culture. The medieval setting gave her full freedom of movement to stretch her legs and take the story wherever she wanted to amble without ever leaving the cathedral. So that may be why she continued the medieval milieu after her conversion.
This began with the Kristin Lavransdatter cycle, which is, in part, an allegory of Undset’s own conversion to Catholicism, and part historical novel about the evangelization of Medieval Norway. Personal conversion parallels national conversion. The saga explores the spiritual and social tensions in that transitional age. From a typically feminine viewpoint, Unset centers her storyline on social relationships—of lovers, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters. This orientation is carried through The Master of Hestviken cycle—as well as her modern novels.
Unlike the otherworldly Charlotte Yonge, Sigrid Undset, as a onetime worldling, has a real feel for men and women and the power of passion, both as a force for good or evil; for the same passion can be either a virtue or a vice depending on how it’s directed or misdirected. Natural passion, to be virtuous, must be channeled by faith and grace. A common thread running through her medieval novels is the cumulative effect of evil as one sin leads to another and weaves a web of moral quandaries.
Unlike an SF novel, Catholicism is a historic phenomenon, so that a Catholic backdrop needs a realistic setting, be it contemporary or historical. And, in Undset’s case, it would need to be historical.
But one further advantage is that this allowed Undset to preserve the national identity of her fiction, for she was writing about Norwegian history. Although discontinuous in time, it was continuous in space.
At the same time, there’s some loss in the fact that she did not write about her experience as a religious minority. So she is leading a sort of double life instead of plowing her life into her work. Within her study she writes about medieval Catholicism. She must leave this world every time she goes out to buy a loaf of bread. It would be better to bring the real world into the study, than compartmentalize life and fiction, for experience is the life-blood of fiction.
In her later novels (Wild Orchid, Burning Bush, Ida Elizabeth, The Faithful Wife; Madame Dorthea), she does try to join the spiritual dimension of her medieval novels with the contemporary setting of her early novels. But, for the most part, they merely transpose the same social dynamic to modernity, without any gain in insight.
A partial exception is The Faithful Wife, where Nathalie espouses an open marriage in theory, only to be devastated when her husband puts the principle of free love into practice. This is a social critique of the radical chic ideology of the educated classes. Madame Dorthea was the first installment of a projected series, and was also to be an 18C tableau of her liberated mother, but her work was overtaken by the dislocations and deprivations of war, which left her a broken woman without the will to round out her literary vision.
Given the Tolkien-cult, the time would seem to be ripe for a revival of interest in Undset’s Nordic Medievalism.
John Updike professes to be a Christian. He is accounted a fine stylist. He writes about the post-war middle class family. His novels are both representative and realistic. They are quintessential period pieces—a slice of modern Americana. Whether you have a taste for Updike depends on whether or not his world is your world. Speaking for myself, I, too, grew up in a post-war middle class family. But I grew up in a home which was, by turns, artistic, political, and pious; a home frequented by preachers and schoolteachers. His world is not my world, is not the world I knew or would wish to know or have chosen to know. His characters do not speak for me or to me or about me. Their occupations and preoccupations are not mine. Their lives are so full for being so empty. In sum, I can no more identify with Updike than Austen.
There is doubtless some spiritual potential in this material, but the seeds never germinate. Ironically, Bradbury’s epiphanic style is much more religious, despite his evident secularity, than Updike’s nominal faith. There is, however, a rising generation of Evangelical novelists who are attempting to wed faith and realism.
An ardent disciple of Darwin, Wells was, in the overweening arrogance of youth, a prophet of secular humanism. But after two world wars he died a bitterly disillusioned and broken old man.
The Wonderful Visit develops an aside by Ruskin that if an angel fell to earth, he would surely be shot. The germinal idea is that innocence and evil cannot coexist. Wells turned heaven into a figure of Fabian socialism, while the provincial little village where the angel landed represents the narrow and backward opponents of progress. Fifty years later, in the Mind at the End of its Tether, the prophet of humanism became the prophet of doom. Without God, every utopian dream becomes a dystopian nightmare.
The literature of Charles Williams is associated with Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and George Macdonald. And Williams was instrumental in the direction or redirection which Lewis took in That Hideous Strength. Unlike the others, who generally situate their stories in fantasy worlds, Williams takes the modern, urban world as the setting for his novels. Yet that is something of a stageset for the spiritual world.
The leading idea in Williams is a highly idiosyncratic take on the communion of saints. On this view, the City of God and City of man merge. Central London is a storefront for heaven. On this view, there is constant commerce between the living and the dead. On this view, the motto of one-for-all and all-for-one is to be taken quite strictly and literally.
Now, this has all the error and appeal of a half-truth. Since almost no reader will subscribe to his eccentric principle of coinherence, his novels overtax the willing suspension of belief. And while there is value is taking the real word as our lens, there are right and wrong ways of relating the sensible and spiritual realms, and trafficking with the dead is a very wrong turn indeed.
The general problem with this sort of literature is that it tends to soften up the Christian reader to believe anything as long as it sounds pious and has a little hook in Christian tradition. Doing theology is not an exercise in creative writing. The source of theology is revelation, not imagination. The faith to which God calls us in Scripture is not make-believe or wishful thinking.
The principle of coinherence is at two removes from revelation. Williams begins, not with Scripture, but with an article from the Apostles’ creed. This is already at one remove from revelation. The original intent of the article (communion of saints) is open to debate. Williams than proceeds to put his own construction on the phrase. This is at two removes from revelation. His procedure would only be sound if it were a valid inference from the creed, and the creed were a valid inference from Scripture.
As it stands, coinherence has a quasi-Platonic or panpsychical flavor to it that makes massive metaphysical claims. Where is the philosophical or Biblical justification for such an ambitious and extravagant doctrine?
In fairness, though, there is a rather natural connection between the communion of the saints and necromancy, as well as mysticism and necromancy—a connection well illustrated in Evelyn Underhill's trilogy: The Grey World, The Lost Word, The Column of Dust. Medieval mysticism and the cult of the saints have much in common. And it is not, I imagine, coincidental that Williams was a close and sympathetic student of Underhill's fiction and non-fiction.
In addition, Williams depicts spiritual warfare in terms of white magic versus black magic. Perhaps this could be given a more orthodox gloss by reference to the one-upmanship between Moses and Jannes & Jambres, or Paul and Bar-Jesus. But this raises the issue of whether an average Christian is so empowered. In my opinion, the answer is no. One is tempted to say of Williams, like Milton before him, that he w as of the Devil’s party without knowing it.
One of Lewis’s harshest critics is Larry Woiwode. Since a writer naturally values in other writers what he values in his own writing, and generally finds fault with authors who do not share his literary values, Woiwode’s dissent presents an instructive contrast between two different theories of Christian fiction.
A character in a Lewis novel is, in Woiwode’s opinion, a cardboard cutout stuffed with wonderful ideas from his essays. For Woiwode, a novel is not about ideas, but people, and— at most—the ideas emerge from the clash of characters and the adaptation or reaction of a character to his environment.
Woiwode uses Lewis as a posterboy for a more general trend he dislikes in contemporary Christian fiction, which is escapist fantasy. For Woiwode, Christian fiction should be about the real world, the world of sin and grace and common grace.
What are we to make of this? It raises a couple of questions: does the failure of Lewis lie in the execution or the goal?
At one level, this goes to a perennial and cyclical debate in art and literature over the role of realism. One generation will make an idol of realism. The next generation, bored by the exhaustive exploration of the minute particular, will take an anti-realist turn.
Much of this also has to do with the individual temperament and experience of the author. We generally write about folks like ourselves, folks we grew up with and work with, members of our own social class. Woiwode likes to write about men and women with a small town, Mid-West, working class background.
Now, there’s no doubt that Lewis is deficient in his powers of characterization. It takes infinite patience to work up a character, to color in all the squares with the routine shades of thought, word and deed that round out a figure and delimit him by the shared surfaces of other figures and common boundary of their outward setting. Lewis hasn’t the forbearance for this sort of minute and mundane detail work. He’s in too much of a hurry to get to the great speech or the great scene.
Woiwode is a much better novelist than Lewis, not only in his longsuffering powers of characterization, but in his professional interest with the mechanics of the craft, by exploring and exploiting different voices and viewpoints. He makes full use of the literary medium.
Yet the criticism is rather one-sided. To begin with, Lewis was an Oxford don. He lived and worked in a world of ideas, the world of the lecture hall and debating society. He was also a philosophy major, or the modern-day equivalent. So Lewis is writing in a way that comes naturally to him. Up to a point, it is a realistic rendition of his social circle. There is an intellectual class. They do talk about ideas—and not just in essays and formal debates, but at the dinning room table. A classic example is To the Lighthouse, which is a semi-autobiographical masque of Virginia Woof's upbringing.
In fact, Woiwode is a member of the intellectual class. His writing improves on the raw materials supplied by his working class characters. He is more meditative, reflective, articulate, even eloquent, than the average farmer and hard-hat, housewife and bank-teller.
But this brings us to a larger issue. Is there such a thing as a Christian novelist? Is a Christian novelist a bard who happens to be Christian, or a Christian who happens to be a bard?
Woiwode is, in part, reacting to Christian fiction which is essentially a sermon with a bit of biographical window-dressing. To some extent, Lewis is guilty of this. And writers like Newman and Pantycelyn are even worse. The narrative and novelistic elements are just a gesture.
But what about writers like Dante and Bunyan, writers who are militantly theological? And yet their dogmatic agenda, which burns through every page like a cigar on paper, is consistent with the highest order of story-telling. Theology is driving the setting and action and dialogue, and that is precisely what gives their work its coiled intensity. All the unity and continuity, propulsive energy and spring-action are tightly wound up in the clockwork and tick-tock of the doctrinal enterprise.
There’s nothing inherently artificial about Christian fiction. If you put a believer with another believer, or put a believer with an unbeliever; if you put a Christian in an unchristian setting, or set an unbeliever in a Christian setting, you have the makings of natural dialogue and drama. And much of Scripture consists in narrative theology. Its historical and theological content does not subtract from its narrative power.
Dante has also shown a number of ways of sounding Christian themes through the use of allusion and allegory. And one can do so with a lighter touch than Dante.
For Woiwode, a good novel is character-driven. That is a valid perspective, and every novelist needs to play to his strength.
But Lewis is more of a landscape painter than a portrait painter. In a novel by Lewis, what ultimately bears the burden of meaning, the carrier wave of the moral vision, is not the messenger or the set speeches, but the evocative environment. That is what the reader remembers. In this respect, Lewis is like Cather. The mute voice of the landscape speaks more forcefully than the plot or personalities.
And here you have a superficial resemblance with Woiwode. For he also has an attentive and affectionate eye for the natural setting. He lingers lovingly on the inanimate scenery.
Yet this presents a point of contrast as well as comparison. Woiwode takes his descriptions direct from nature. And his theology underwrites this perspective. His word is the word of the world that God has made.
One reason that Lewis’s novelistic art is not character-driven is undoubtedly due to his socially stunted upbringing. But there are theological reasons as well—although these may also have origin in his social alienation, which—in turn, leaves him aloof from the sensible world.
As we all know, Lewis likes to write about imaginary worlds—the never-never landscape of Narnia and Perelandra and Malecandra. And his theology underwrites this orientation. For Lewis lies to write about other worlds because he has an otherworldly outlook; in his platonic theology and ontology, the imaginary and mythical are even more, and no less real, than the world of time and space.
This, then, is not an issue over novelistic technique. It goes much deeper than that. It comes down to an issue of who has a truer worldview—Lewis or Woiwode? As a member, not only of a Reformed church, but a theonomic church, with a family-centered faith in federal theology and covenant seed, with a postmillennial faith in the historical progress and final triumph of the Gospel on earth, as well as a faith in the summons and success of the cultural mandate, Woiwode has a religious investment in the welfare of the world and the nation.
And that brings us to one further issue. Woiwode’s realism commits him to a degree of explicit profanity that you don’t ordinarily encounter in Christian fiction this side of Dante. We make a mistake if we either accept or reject this out of hand.
On the one hand, you have folks who grew up in a conservative church. When they go to college, they take courses in literature which expose them to all the vulgarities of the reprobate mind. At this point, some of them succumb to spiritual pride. They flatter themselves that they are mature enough to see or hear or read anything an unbeliever can write or say or show. They convince themselves that this is part of begin all things to all men, of engaging the culture and witnessing to he world. They pretend that they are so grown up that they are entitled to this sort of adult fare and immune to its corrupting influences. Indeed, they dismiss such admonitions as prim Victorian fear-mongering.
Now, aside from the fact that some of these folks are nominal believers to begin with, it is also the case that a Christian is not supposed make a point of seeing and hearing everything the unbeliever indulges in. Some of this is unavoidable, but we ought not immerse ourselves in this moral climate. It is hard to disinfect a polluted imagination.
On the other hand, Woiwode was an established novelist well before his conversion. So he’s not a Christian outsider who’s vying for an insider’s view of Sodom and Gomorrah, but a spiritual escapee who’s warning unwary travelers.
There is also a sense in which his warts-and-all style dovetails rather nicely with his theology. Calvinism is the one theological tradition which never flinches in face of the harsh, ugly, evil facts of life. And, of course, you have the Bible's unblushingly candor. There are also a few colorful expressions, usually reserved for quotation, that have never made their way out committee. In translation work, a common rule of thumb is to ask what words a Greek or Hebrew speaker would use if he were speaking in modern English. Applied to 2 Kgs 18:27, I don't suppose that your average translation quite captures the first choice of available synonyms.
But over against this, the Bible is ordinarily sparing on the grim and gory details. The explicit impression is supplied by the imagination of the reader. A case in point is Canticles, which achieves its effect, not through anatomical detail, but suggestive analogies and atmospherics. Once again, less is more.
The Heir of Reclyffe is of some incidental interest inasmuch as this novel was instrumental in the conversion of Abraham Kuyper, as well as some charter members of the Rossetti circle (Morris, Burne-Jones) But when I revisit it, I’m afraid that it reads like a stereotypical period piece.
The plot revolves around a sibling rivalry between Sir Guy Moreville, the protagonist, and his cousin Philip Edmonstone, over Amy, the gold-hearted heroine and common love interest. An orphan, Guy Moreville is reared by his wealthy grandfather. Guy is heir to the family fortune, but doesn’t receive his inheritance until he comes of age. When his grandfather dies, Guy receives an allowance from his guardian—the father of Amy.
When an impecunious uncle privately approaches Guy for financial assistance, Guy dutifully and discreetly takes out a loan, using his inheritance as collateral, to pay off the debts. But Philip, Guy’s self-righteous prig of a cousin, gets wind of a garbled version of this transaction, spreads malicious rumors about his cousin’s compulsive gambling, and tries to block the engagement of Guy and Amy. When word of this gets back to the guardian, he demands an explanation from Guy; but Guy, ever honorable, refuses to betray a confidence, and thereby endures the ignominy of a false accusation. When his uncle finds out about the scandal, he intervenes. With the stigma lifted, Guy and Amy tie the knot and honeymoon in Italy, where they encounter Philip, bedridden with fever. Guy forgives his treacherous cousin and nurses him back to a semblance of good health, but, in the process, takes ill and succumbs. Philip, broken in heart and health, is redeemed by his cousin’s noble example.
Yonge was a Victorian spinster who taught Sunday school for over 70 years. Amy is a projection of Yonge’s Ango-Catholic femininity.
The novel tells a lovely and latently moving story of saintly virtue and the power of redemption. But it’s all a tad too perfect, too good, too beautiful to ring true. Guy’s absolution of Philip is far too free and easy to command conviction. There is a certain paradox to the grace of forgiveness, for it takes grace to be gracious. Because we are sinners we need the forgiveness of God; but because we are sinners, we are unforgiving of others. We are better as objects of remission than as subjects of remission. What is no effort for God is a considerable effort for you and me. It costs us nothing in merit, but everything in pride.
And this brings us to a larger problem. Because Yonge never dated or married or bore and nurtured boys to manhood, her male characters have a China doll quality to them. Guy is a fine young man —at times too good to be true, or goody-goody in a school-girlish way—with heavy helpings of sugar and spice and everything nice. For Yonge, the perfect husband would approximate a household pet.
What Yonge takes to be character flaws are natural masculine traits. Guy’s besetting sin is a quick-temper. But although a short-fuse and sharp tongue can be a sin, a man without any temper is a limp, floppy, gelatinous thing—and a streak of itchy-twitchy impatience is the natural expression of a young man’s overflowing energy.
For that matter, not a few women—pious women included—are hardly such confectionery creatures as sweet little Amy. Many girls are Tomboys. Many women have a wild streak. Even Christian Rossetti, her fellow Victorian, Tractarian, and spinster had a more robust and realistic view of manly and womanly passions.
For all his flaws, Yonge’s way of writing makes one appreciative of Milton’s manliness, and other virile writers like Spenser and Scott, Dante and the author of Beowulf. If Tom Brown’s School Days stood for muscular Christianity, The Heir of Redclyffe stood for emasculated Christianity.
What guidance can we derive from this survey regarding the future directions which Christian fiction ought to take? In my opinion, the best Christian fiction should embody the following features:
A balance between realism and irrealism. A balance between the universal and the particular. A balance between natural and supernatural goods. Use of natural, Scriptural, and ecclesiastical symbolism. Use of church history. Use of contemporary history. Use of literary allusion. Use of Biblical allusion. A Christian worldview. A Bible ethic of social role-relations. A candid, but measured, depiction of sin. A witness to the power of the Gospel. A prose-style tooled to express rather than impress. Emotional transparency. Narrative transparency. A first-person narrator or unobtrusive third-person narrator.
Some of these criteria admit exceptions. There is sometimes a value in taking things to an extreme. And, up to a point, a really gifted writer can break the rules and make his own rules.
Another issue I’ve touched on is the question of whether some literary genres are more suited to the Christian outlook than others. Two genres, the quest and the comedy, illustrate a v-shaped plotline that moves from a high point to a low point to a high or higher point.
Theological systems in which freewill is a key factor (e.g., Arminian, Roman Catholic, Greek and Russian Orthodoxy) naturally select for the quest genre, for they view the walk of faith as involving elements of human initiative (freewill) and risk (apostasy). The quest genre construes salvation in terms of enlightenment.
Theological systems in which grace is the key factor (e.g., Reformed, Augustinian) naturally select for the comic genre, for they view of the walk of faith, not as man reaching upward, but as God reaching downward to uplift the sinner. The sinner may face various ordeals, and even succumb to temptation, but God will rescue him and bring him through. The comic genre construes salvation in terms of deliverance.
It would be more accurate to classify Dante’s Commedia as an example of the quest genre, whereas The Pilgrim’s Progress is a classic example of a Christian comedy. The life of Christ is a comedy rather than a quest, for there was never any chance of failure.